Aotearoa’s police procedural mockumentary and parody of The X Files could have been painful. Instead, Wellington Paranormal can be summed up as the Lower Hutt version of Dungeons and Dragons. While it’s certainly an homage to Wellington, with its Bucket Fountain and nods to Footrot Flats and John Clarke’s Fred Dagg, it’s also much more.
As creators’ Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi’s spin-off from their horror comedy film What We Do In The Shadows, its premise is derived from juxtaposing social niceties with horror genre expectations. Remember: ‘werewolves, not swearwolves’. But the source of its humour is the awkwardness, bad timing and social ineptitude of the main characters, police officers Minogue (Mike Minogue) and O’Leary (Karen O’Leary), who embody a state of relating to each other best defined as ‘anti-chemistry’.
Yet it is not the horror nor police clumsiness that lifts Wellington Paranormal above parody: it’s the good-naturedness. It’s a much needed antidote to world-weary scepticism, guarded knowingness and often cynical analysis of contemporary news and entertainment.
LISTEN: KAREN O'LEARY Zooms in to talk Wellington Paranormal - and being the public face of NZ's 2020 lockdown
'Wellington Paranormal': the opposite of world weary
The source of this good-naturedness is, to quote Officer Minogue, the fact that both the police and the humour refuse to ‘brutalise anyone’. Wellington Paranormal doesn’t ‘punch down’ by mocking classes or demographics. Here, it's institutions that get ribbed.
This humour arises in much the same way that Hunt for the Wilderpeople – another Taika Waititi creation – takes a dig at (militarised) child services. And yet Wellington Paranormal is respectful, creating in Sergeant Maaka (Maaka Pohatu) an overly dramatic leader who is nonetheless the font of occult wisdom.
What elevates the officers is that their first instincts are to help. Thus, when a girl claims she is ‘Bazu’aal of the Unholy Realm’ Officer Minogue’s immediate reaction is to check if that’s ‘the Unholy Realm in Hataitai?’ Similarly, when confronted with a possessed woman with the voice of a demon, Minogue offers a lozenge. It matters less that the help is ridiculous than it is thoughtful.
By centring the police as the butt of the jokes, pointed social commentary is softened, but not lost. While laughs are generated by the idea of millennial zombies distracted by mobile phones, the audience was already laughing at the zombie police, and the fact zombies are in custody.
While the program recognises subcultures, it directs most of the comedy away from attacking them, instead going for opportunities to use police as the foils for laughter. When presented with two women in a cemetery telling the officers to ‘stop police terror’ and this is a ‘police free zone,’ Officer Minogue doesn’t meet insult with anger. Instead he asks the women ‘what have you got left to do on Earth’, mistaking goths for ghosts. We don’t have time to laugh at stereotypes because the police divert the laughter towards themselves.
Minogue and O’Leary choose not to react to insults that in a crime drama could get people hurt. For instance, the officers are accused of attacking minorities when arresting a Maori vampire, but they make clear it is about theft not identity. Both officers walk into the joke in the same way they walk into each case: unknowingly, but all in.
Officer Minogue, the more innocent and uneducated of the team, is the butt of the jokes within the police. While he might get funnier lines, it means O’Leary is lent slightly more gravitas as an officer. No comedy is at the expense of O’Leary as a woman, although the awkward glances to camera arising from her confusion are gold.
If the officers and the program have a ‘fatal flaw’, it’s that the ignorant goodness of Minogue and O’Leary prevents them from reflecting on their mistakes. They are not suspicious and are too easily allayed, like the sacrificial victim who assures the officers everything is fine.
In the wider world, like rare island fauna, they would not survive, but in their world, they stand before the camera, on the edge of self-realisation that never comes; it’s always behind them, like the monsters and the main action. Yet we forgive them because they’ve cast their glow over us.
While ’70s party culture, psychics, cat ladies, delivery workers and farmers get targeted for jokes, the officers always do their duty and take the heat. Police are the bigger fools in any scene, but even as the officers flail as investigators, they support each other – they are well-intentioned individuals who see the benefits of having zombie colleagues.
When our political climate makes it easy to see difference as division and cause for enmity, humour grounded in characters whose instinctual kindness comes above suspicion is a balm. Comedy that draws attention to the ability to ignore what’s in front of us is a lesson. We laugh, but we are capable of being Minogue and O’Leary: ridiculous and good-natured, but often realising too late, if at all, what is at stake.
Don't miss the brand new season of Wellington Paranormal: SBS VICELAND Wednesday 24 February 8.30pm
Or binge seasons 1 & 2 at SBS On Demand (season 3 episodes after available to stream after broadcast):