The second episode of channel Nine’s new comedy, Here Come the Habibs, begins much as the first did: with random dancing.
Toufic and the confusingly-named Jahash immediately begin gyrating after greeting each other. (I say “confusingly-named” because Jahash means mule in Arabic). In the pilot, the Habibs couldn’t stop dancing, with even the word ‘lemonade’ setting them off into a demented chanting, foot-stamping, clapping romp. Thankfully, here at least, the first instance of dancing is also the last.
While this week’s offering is considerably better than our first outing with the Habibs, it’s still bad. The two main plotlines concern the fallout from the Habibs’ lotto win being revealed in the paper, and Mariam’s attempt to join the elitist yacht club. Both yield mixed results, in terms of comedy and quality content, with the few positives only serving to further highlight the negatives.
As Mariam heads to the yacht club, the rest of the Habibs have to deal with the extended family descending en masse upon their house. Their brilliant plan to pretend they’re not home is spoiled when Layla seizes the moment to try and become an Arab Kardashian by calling into a local radio show for an interview. As Fou Fou attempts to stop her from revealing their situation, she promises to comply if she can get a Porsche. Everything about her minor storyline is regrettable, but by far the worst moment comes when the radio host chimes in with “hashtag I’ll ride with Layla”.
This is a microcosm of everything that’s wrong with Here Come the Habibs - its insistence on referencing every recognizable pop cultural moment involving Arab Australians. It’s symptomatic of a deep insecurity, as if the writers (mostly white men) feel the need to constantly hammer home the Arab credentials of the show.
We see this not just in these hackneyed references but also in throwaway lines, as when Olivia refers to the Habibs as Hamas, or says “I don’t want to be here when the falafel hits the fan.” While harmless in the latter instance, the snide, sleazy tone of a radio host saying he’ll ride with Layla should she get a Porsche is just gross. (Actually, I take it back. The falafel line is also bad. The only thing falafel should be hitting is my mouth.)
Having said all that, there are definitely signs of improvement, with the highlight of the episode being the other members of the Habibs’ extended family. Although they’re given only a few seconds each, those few seconds do more for the show than the entirety of the first episode, and everything that follows. As Fou Fou asks them each what they want, they look and sound real, with the character interactions and humour for once not revolving around race. It’s a blessed relief to find something actually funny here, something to laugh with and not at, but it only goes to show how much it’s lacking elsewhere.
Another highlight comes from the inverted Pocahontas romance, as Madison (white colonist) and Elias (exotic Other) continue to find reasons to drive around together. This leads to a great comic exchange with two police officers, one of whom bonds with Toufic over potential business ideas like “Uber but with cops” while the other arrests Madison “Erin Brockovich” O’Neill for unpaid parking fines. Top marks here for excellent sassiness and one of the first successful role-reversals achieved to date.
Sadly, those two scenes were the only brief moments of grace. Mariam’s yacht club storyline suffered greatly from the continued presence of the overtly racist Olivia O’Neill, who tries in vain to keep Mariam from joining the club. “First they invade my street, now they want to join my club,” she says, cementing her status as the biggest obstacle this program has to overcome. The Commodore’s blithe, cynical commercialism - accepting 20 Lebanese families because “stuff the rules, we can now renovate the pier” - only makes Olivia’s antagonism all the more jarringly mean and prejudiced. Worse, it’s not even funny, and there’s plenty of comedy to be derived from rich white people, as ably proved by literally every other character in that category.
A lot of the bungled bigotry in the first two episodes could be forgiven if not her poorly written character, though it’s unfair to lay it entirely at her feet. There are plenty of sweeping moments, as in the last scene of this episode, with the Habibs’ extended family coming into the pier on a speed boat, festooned with life jackets, that demonstrate the problem isn’t just with her character. Cue a panning shot of horrified white faces, capped by Olivia saying “Oh no, boat people!” with a tone of disgust as they land. This is such a crass and unnecessary visual gag making light of refugees, and it’s one of too many cases which only reinforce negative, misleading stereotypes about Lebanese Australians.
The crying shame of the few good moments so far is that they show so clearly how much better Here Come the Habibs could be, and how often it falls so abysmally short.