Maybe it’s stating the obvious, but it’s a weird thing writing characters based on you and your family for TV. Onscreen Benjamin is kind of me, but not really. For starters, he’s better dressed (the baggy shorts and lanky hair of the 1990s weren’t ever a great look for an underweight Asian kid), has noticeably less acne and is much more photogenic (thank you, Trystan Go). Real-life Jenny is just as inappropriate as her TV version, but everyone who knows my mum can confirm she’s more outrageous than the Jenny we’ve written. We’re working with the timeslot we’ve been given, people.
At the series one cast read-through – the first time the actors had met one another – I told everyone their obligations as actors weren’t to me or my family, but to the characters on the page. Maybe I imagined it, but I think I saw muscles visibly relax after I said it. We’re not trying to do what Natalie Portman did in Jackie here, or, you know, what Charlize Theron did when she played Aileen Wuornos. (I’d pay good money to see Fi Choi playing Aileen Wuornos though.)
Sure, the show’s inspired by real people and events, but the interpretation is pretty loose. If Benjamin’s line in episode one (“My name is Benjamin Law, and this is my family”) was a mission statement, another line in episode six was the caveat. “Well it’s just inspired by real events,” Benjamin says. “No one expects it to be completely accurate.”
Still, TV characters – like real humans – have to be complex, while operating within their own codes and rules. In series one, the Benjamin we wrote was clearly capable of monstrous things; he was self-obsessed and oblivious to how ridiculous he seemed. But as long as we saw he had his parents’ – and family’s – best interests at heart, we knew the audience would forgive him. As much as Benjamin’s personal quest was to become famous, his primary goal was to keep Danny and Jenny together. (Awww.)
In series two, though, we thought it’d be interesting to see what Benjamin would be like without that likability safety net to fall back on. Now Benjamin’s learned he can’t fix his parents’ marriage, would we still forgive him the same faults? Given he was so supportive and lovely to Jenny in series one, what would happen when Benjamin acted like an utter s*** to her, like every teenager eventually does to their parents? And even though one of the sweet things about the first series of The Family Law was the relationship between Benjamin and Jenny, we thought it was time to see what it'd look like when they clashed. It’s not pretty. But neither were my teenage years.
The American writer Joan Didion once wrote, “I think we are well-advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not.” By The Family Law – both the book and TV show – I’ve probably taken that advice too literally. But as much as it can fill me with dread and loathing to look back on how I acted as a teenager, I hope audiences also feel what we tried to convey as we’ve written these characters: compassion.
The Family Law airs on SBS every Thursday night at 8:30pm. New episodes and the entire first season are streaming now via SBS On Demand: