When The Family Law premiered in 2016, it made TV history as the first ever show with an Asian-Australian family in lead dramatic roles. Previously we were more likely to see someone of Asian-Australian heritage celebrating their cultural roots through the food they made on a cooking or reality show, rather than as a protagonist in a drama or comedy.
Screen Australia crunched the numbers in a report that same year surveying the state of diversity on Australian screens – a welcome call-to-action for an industry who needed the numbers laid out plainly to realise how low the benchmark – and bar – for on-screen diversity had been set. Author Amal Awad spoke about the importance of making room for characters who are not there solely to be the point of difference; to move towards normalising, rather than tokenising, diverse voices, and Benjamin Law pointed out in 2017 that limited representation doesn’t happen by accident – if we wanted things to change, we had to do something about it.
At the same time, Australian television was signalling a change – in 2016, the following television shows either returned or made their debut on-screen: Black Comedy, Cleverman, Barracuda, Love Child and Here Come the Habibs! – shows that dealt with identity in contemporary Australia, but also tried to make sense of universal themes: the end of the world, ambition, injustice and family.
The Australian television landscape can often feel like navigating an obstacle course of whose stories are considered exceptional and whose mundane, for better or worse. This country has a long history of producing what were known as ‘ethnic’ comedies – loud-and-proud-style shows from Acropolis Now and Pizza to Swift and Shift Couriers and Housos. Despite this, there was still a need for a kind of storytelling that dared to the see the stories of people of colour as universal; as typical, perhaps even delightfully ordinary.
The Family Law and Here Come the Habibs! premiered in Australia weeks apart – but drew vastly different critical reactions. Marketed as a culture-clash sitcom, Habibs looked at what happens when a family of Middle Eastern descent wins the lottery and moves into an expensive Sydney suburb, making their wealthy Anglo neighbours uncomfortable.
Spoken word artist and activist Candy Royalle raised concerns about the writing on the show, pointing out that ‘if the only way we’re going to see Lebanese-Australian faces on television is to reinforce racist tropes, then that’s not diversity, that’s prejudice’. The ratings chimed in: My Kitchen Rules still outperformed a show like Habibs that year. After two seasons, Habibs didn’t return for a third in early 2018.
Taking things in a new direction
The Family Law signalled the end of an era in which Asian-Australian actors were only offered supporting or background roles, but it also dared to realise its characters with a great deal of compassion and warmth.
The show celebrates dysfunction – a marriage falling apart; a teenager hungry for stardom; the trials and tribulations of dating someone your family doesn’t approve of; the angst of not yet knowing your best friend is gay (and them not yet knowing, either) – rather than putting harmful stereotypes on a pedestal.
For example, none of the women on the show are reduced to submissive stereotypes – rather, they face conflict head-on and want to get to the bottom of solving problems and making things work. And Chinese superstitions and traditions play a huge part in their day-to-day lives, providing ample opportunities to talk about what it means to grow up in contemporary Australia and continue to respect where you and your parents come from.
Melbourne-based writer and producer Nikki Tran – a second generation Australian whose family arrived as refugees in Australia from Vietnam – remembers how she felt when The Family Law premiered on television: ‘It was the first time I saw me represented in narrative television, ever. It captures the specific experience of growing up Chinese-Australian that isn’t the same as growing up a Chinese-American or Chinese-Canadian.’
The specificity of the characters – adapted loosely from Ben Law’s award-winning memoir of the same name – evoked memories and images of Tran’s own experience of growing up: ‘I saw my parents and relatives in the way Jenny Law speaks candidly about bodily functions, I saw my grandma in the way Danny peels fruit with a knife and hand-feeds it to his child, I even saw my friends and their siblings in the moments when the Law children piled into the Toyota Tarago family car (almost every big Chinese or Viet family had one).’
Making room for new voices
While The Family Law may be in its final season this year, one thing is for certain: the show has paved the way for new storytellers to bring their stories and experiences forward, and build followings of their own.
This includes Corrie Chen’s Homecoming Queens – a semi-autobiographical look at two best friends who decide to reinvent themselves in the face of dealing with their chronic illnesses, co-created and written by Michelle Law and Chloë Reeson.
The emergence of the web series as a format for ideas that remain untested on mainstream television is becoming more recognised. Tran’s dramedy series, FRESH!, which premiered in 2018, is set in a fresh food market and focuses on the migrant experience in Australia. Over the course of six episodes, we meet different stallholders who all have ambitions, a longing for connection, and a fierce desire to claim their turf and protect their way of making a living in the face of rival businesses and disgruntled customers.
True to the multicultural nature of fresh food markets, the show includes multilingual dialogue: Iraqi Arabic, Egyptian Arabic, Cantonese, Italian, Hindi and Hokkien – a rarity in Australian storytelling.
Of what she’d like to see change in the industry, Tran says, ‘I think it’s important to realise that to successfully tell stories about characters from marginalised backgrounds with depth and nuance, producers and decision makers need to make a deliberate effort to include writers, directors, other producers and creatives who have lived experience or ownership of those stories to be voices at the table.’
Surveying the post Family Law television landscape
Mindy Gill, the editor in chief of Asian-Australian online journal, Peril, is the child of migrants from Malaysia who arrived in Queensland in the early 90s, at the height of Hansonism. She says: ‘The Family Law poked a particular part of my brain that stored all of my vulnerabilities surrounding what it meant to grow up as the only Chinese-Indian kid I’d ever known. What difference would have been made if a show like this was on air when I was growing up?’
Gill believes that seeing these stories on television isn’t about arriving at a sense of these stories being universal; rather, something far more powerful lies ahead: ‘The Family Law, for me, signals a major step toward the normalisation of migrant stories in mainstream media… and allows us to raise important questions about whose stories, faces and experiences are missing from the narrative.’
While we may still live in an era where Asian-Australian actors have to head overseas to gain career-changing recognition, Asian-Americans are making waves in queer representation in Hollywood, and there is plenty to be hopeful for as The Family Law closes its final chapter.
As the Filipino-Australian poet Eleanor Jackson implores: let us always be emboldened by the example.
Season three of The Family Law airs Saturdays at 8:30pm on SBS and SBS VICELAND. The entire season (along with the first two seasons) is streaming at SBS On Demand: