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TV Review: 800 Words (New Zealand/Australia)

This Review is Exactly 800 Words–And 5 Stars

by G G Collins          (Copyright 2017)

In journalism, writers are asked to turn in stories in one of two ways: by column inch or a certain number of words. In the case of this enchanting television series from Down Under (at least to us above the Northern Horse Latitudes), George Turner’s column for a Sydney publication is 800 words.

George, played by Erik Thomson, has experienced a rough turn. His wife was run down by a speeding driver as he watched in disbelief. He blames himself, even though it was not him driving the car. When we lose loved ones we go on in one of two ways: we live with the ghosts or we move away from the ghosts. In George’s case, he has to move away, despite his daughter Shay’s (Melina Vidler) protests, his son Arlo’s (Benson Jack Anthony) indifference and his in-laws’ opinion that his judgment is vastly impaired.

He buys a house, sight unseen, in the small town of Weld, New Zealand. George has fond memories of summers in Weld with his family and he believes he’s buying the house they shared in his childhood. But the reality is quite different. When the Turner family arrives, George discovers he has bought the wrong house, and this house is in a decrepit state. The furniture is piled in the front yard—burned well-done. Inside isn’t much better with no working toilet, a stove-less kitchen, unfinished walls and a gaping hole in the ceiling which George contemplates when he can’t sleep. And worse yet, all their possessions are lost when the freighter bringing them from Australia sinks into the ocean. Luck doesn’t get much worse than this.

What do you do when you’ve lost all your material possessions and find yourself in an unfamiliar place with two teenagers about to pull a mutiny? Yes, George needs to sort things out. He’ll have a lot of help. Immediately he discovers the house’s caretaker Woody. Okay, caretaker is a bit strong. It’s more like he’s a squatter; but really, George is so overwhelmed he’ll take any help he can get. For a few days, he and his kids eat out a lot and use restrooms where they can find them. Once Woody (Rick Donald) has the toilet working, the septic system immediately turns into a backyard gusher. Shay refuses to use the open air latrine Woody built them with a vast view of the sea and it’s off to the nearest motel.

As you might expect, Weld is populated with eccentrics and way too many McNamaras, the local prominent family. The McNamara family owns the real estate agency, the local newspaper, the plumbing repair shop, a seaside piece of land the town doesn’t want developed into an assisted living center and most every other business in town. Yup, you know there’s going to be conflict. But can George avoid the human fray? Hmmm.

Meanwhile his children are having their own troubles. Shay despises their new home and finds the local high school exceptionally unwelcoming. Arlo, who seems mature beyond his years, tries his best to fit in and keep the peace. But peace isn’t readily available. Even, or especially, small towns have bullies and they come in all genders.

Shay meets the local Casanova and soon learns he has a collection of photos on his cell of all his conquests in bed—and she gave him her virginity! That is the last straw for her and she heads back to Sydney to stay with her grandparents—without first clearing her travel plans with dad.

All the while, this is a grieving family. Arlo talks about the Kübler-Ross model and its five stages of grief. He’s worried his dad is stuck in one and not moving forward. There is an excellent scene where his children point out to George he has to get a job.

George tries to cope by surfing, sort of, because in his youth it was something he loved. Some of the best moments are with him and Woody philosophizing astride their surf boards awaiting the next wave to the shore and exchanging heated words on the nude beach.

He is most at home at his laptop writing his column. There is sense and rescue for him in words. The familiarity of the keys gives him confidence. He turns on occasion to speak directly to the viewer willing them to understand, wanting reassurance.

Creators James Griffin and Maxine Fleming have concocted a real gem in 800 Words. It might be referred to as a dramedy in the States, but this is so much more. It has laugh out loud moments intermixed with very poignant scenes. George is a father who feels out of his depth, both in raising a family alone and in beginning to date again. He’s so vulnerable you can’t help but root for him.

800 Words is available in the US via Acorn TV.

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