You wouldn’t normally associate alcoholism with comedy. But new Aussie series Iggy & Ace, screening on SBS VICELAND, isn’t afraid to tackle problem drinking in a way that’s funny and honest.
The six-part series centres on brash Iggy and awkward Ace, both gay and in their 20s, best mates who enjoy drinking every night in Perth’s pubs and clubs.
“Iggy and Ace use it as an escape sometimes, to avoid their feelings or avoid going through any sort of troubles,” says Josh Virgona, who plays Ace. “It can be seen as an addiction they can use together.”
For Iggy and Ace there’s only one goal: to get totally smashed and deal with the inevitable hangovers in the morning before heading to their day jobs at a bottle shop.
“Live hard, die young, bitch!” declares Iggy (Sara West).
But their terminally ill drug dealer friend Otto (Dalip Sondhi) is concerned about their self-destructive behaviour. He scolds them about drinking too much, before snorting a line of cocaine. After one big night too many, Ace wakes up and suffers a panic attack, followed by another the next morning. He recognises that he has a drinking problem and needs to make some life changes. So he decides to attend a gay Alcoholics Anonymous group.
“The pivotal point for Ace is realising how much of an effect it has on him physically, mentally, emotionally, and socially as well,” Virgona says. “So him going to AA and trying to move forward from that is a big thing.”
But Ace’s decision causes a rift in his friendship with Iggy, which worsens when they learn that Otto is near death. She struggles with Ace’s decision to embrace sobriety.
“You can’t be an alcoholic,” she drunkenly declares at a dinner party as she helps herself to another glass of wine. “You don’t drink any more than I do.”
The irony is staggering considering Iggy’s boozing is also causing problems with her long-suffering artist girlfriend Justine (Joanna Tu), including getting so hammered that she forgets their one-year anniversary. Although Ace is trying to move forward, it’s not easy to break old habits.
“It’s this very funny cyclical nature of addiction where it always comes back somehow,” Virgona adds.
The six episodes are each just 10 minutes long, but there’s a lot to unpack, ranging from the duo’s crazy drinking escapades to the very serious issues of addiction and toxic friendships.
“Alcohol is a powerful kind of substance used in the right way for fun,” Virgona says. “In the other way it can be quite dangerous.”
Iggy & Ace is the first series to be greenlit for SBS and Screen Australia’s joint initiative Digital Originals. It was written and co-directed by A.B. Morrison, who says it was “kind of inspired by everyone I’ve met in my adult life, having registered the elevated incidence of substance abuse in the queer community”. In light of Australia’s drinking culture, he felt it was a story worth exploring.
For young actor Virgona, Ace was his first major TV role after graduating from the WA Academy Of Performing Arts (WAAPA) earlier this year. Not having struggled with alcohol addiction himself – “a few good red wines every now and then, or a beer or two, more for the social aspect” – he needed to do some research before shooting started.
“I had no idea about the whole 12-step program stuff and AA meetings, and I also didn’t realise how religious it was,” he says. “I talked to a few people and their experiences about the programs, the forgiveness and stuff.”
The series was shot in Perth this year, and while that might have seemed like the least likely city in Australia to have a shooting schedule hit by COVID, it was.
“We were about to film in the first week and lockdown happened, because there were a few cases,” Virgona remembers. “So we had to pause things and push everything forward.”
For his TV debut, Virgona found himself acting opposite Sara West, who’s appeared in series from Dead Lucky to Ash vs Evil Dead, and also sharing scenes with comedy veteran Roz Hammond, who plays the AA group’s informal leader Gwen.
“It was daunting at first going in,” he admits.
The series also marks the major TV debut of two other recent WAAPA graduates – Joanna Tu, and Aiden Hawke, who plays Otto’s carer, Prince.
“It was good to have a safety net of friends that we made at WAAPA,” Virgona adds.
The series debuted at SBS On Demand in September and it seems it already has people reflecting on how they drink and why. Virgona has seen it in the feedback he’s had from viewers who’ve gone through what Ace experiences.
“A few people have reached out on Instagram to say it’s a great story and they can relate.”
Iggy & Ace premieres at 9.20pm, Monday 6 December on SBS VICELAND. All six episodes will air back to back. The full season is now streaming at SBS On Demand.