Calum Henderson spent season one of 800 Words helping main character George Turner turn his shambolic column excerpts into finished newspaper copy. In season two, Turner has lost his writing job – and the show is better for it.
George Turner made it as far as the second series of 800 Words before someone at the major Australian newspaper he wrote for realised the columns he was filing every week were completely unintelligible.
“There is an inevitability that occurs when certain elements mix,” he drily pontificated during the first episode back. “The Chinese discovered this and called it gunpowder. By adding a spark, there’s no way to avoid an explosion.” Carelessly, he hit send without proofreading or even doing a word count to check if he’d made it to 800.
George is the dad-bod equivalent of Sex and the City’s Carrie Bradshaw; snippets of his columns are used to narrate each episode and add a layer of profundity to the feel-good drama. Here the Guy Fawkes night fireworks were a metaphor for his strained relationship with his teenage daughter, but try explaining that to the editorial assistant who Skyped him soon after filing and told him he’d been made redundant.
This long-overdue sacking was just about the worst thing to happen to anybody during Sunday night’s double-episode, the first half of which centred around the family’s attempts to convince his daughter to move back from Sydney and the second half of which involved George chasing up a rogue tradie over a dodgy invoice.
It’s this sort of harmless low-stakes drama which seems to have made 800 Words so popular with audiences here and especially across the Tasman. The small seaside New Zealand township of Weld has become a rare reliable TV destination – one where the sun is almost always shining and where nothing too dark really happens to the mildly eccentric, mostly likeable characters who live there.
This expanding cast is the show’s greatest strength, and its biggest improvement from the start of series one. Since widower George and his teenage kids relocated from Sydney seeking a fresh start back in 2015, the Weld community has continued to be fleshed out with a supporting cast that reads like a Who’s Who of local talent (Lionel from Shortland Street! Maia, also from Shortland Street!).
With freshly-unemployed George taking up a new role as editor of local rag The News of the Weld (round of applause for whoever came up with that one) his horizons keep expanding – as does the cast. Jackie Van Beek, probably the funniest actor in New Zealand, is already a highlight of series two as Gloria, the paper’s no-nonsense production manager.
The growing number of Weld inhabitants are brought to life by a table of wizened screenwriting veterans (and a couple relative newcomers) helmed by co-creators James Griffin and Maxine Fleming. While there are occasional cringe-inducing moments (we need a nationwide moratorium on Dave Dobbyn’s ‘Welcome Home’) and the odd unconvincing line (no teenage girl has used the word “bonking” this century, or probably ever), most of the time the writing hits pleasing notes: earnest but not too earnest, clever but not too clever.
800 Words revealed its charms slowly at first, rewarding viewers who stuck with it through series one. Now entering its second series the show has found a nice groove where you sense it could easily run for another six or seven without anyone noticing, or anything much ever really happening.
The simple pleasure of idly flitting between the boat club, the beach and the Turners’ half-renovated house, checking in with the locals and listening to other people’s non-life-threatening problems for an hour like some cheerful upmarket soap opera, would probably be enough.
800 Words airs Wednesdays on TVNZ1 at 8.45pm
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