Tuesday, August 13, 2013

The Almighty Johnsons: Family Dysfunction of Heavenly Proportions

(bottom left, clockwise) Timothy Balme, Emmett Skilton, Dean O'Gorman & Jared Turner in The Almighty Johnsons

Like many other stories, this one begins with a 21st birthday party (albeit set in a New Zealand locale with accents and culture somewhat exotic to North Americans). Expecting a big, beer-driven blowout, Axl Johnson (Emmett Skilton) gets a little more than he bargained for: apparently he and his brothers are reincarnated Norse gods, and now it’s his turn to enter the family business. With a title guaranteed to make any fourth grade boy involuntarily snigger, The Almighty Johnsons is like nothing else on television. Despite its over-the-top premise that Norse deities incarnated themselves into human beings, packed up from Norway in the 19th century, and emigrated to New Zealand, the ensemble comedy-drama has a refreshing lack of pretension, and leans on smart writing and appealing acting instead of special effects and melodrama. In an era with more teen vampires, werewolves, witches, and wizards than we know what to do with, this New Zealand export stands out with its narrative restraint, charm, and a maturity that exceeds that of its often emotionally-stunted characters.

As with the British series Misfits, the initial promise of superpowers quickly turns out to be a mixed blessing, inevitably complicating the Johnsons’ already complicated lives. On paper at least, The Almighty Johnsons would seem to have quite a bit in common with Misfits, but unlike the Channel 3 series Johnsons cares much more deeply about its characters and their relationships. As the title would imply, it is a story about family, and brothers especially. Despite a tongue in cheek tone, the Johnson brothers – the big-hearted lug Axl, the overly responsible big brother Mike (Timothy Balme), the roguish Anders (Dean O'Gorman, The Hobbit), and the depressive Ty (Jared Turner) – are surprisingly well fleshed out. Each is burdened with the spirit, and weakened powers, of a Norse god – which often illuminates a dark aspect of their personality. (For example, Mike is also Ullr, the god of games and the hunt, and when we meet up with him, he has spent much of his adult life trying to keep those powers in check, like a gambling addict in recovery.) After generations on Earth, the “god powers” have diminished considerably – or more precisely, as one character describes it, over the years they have forgotten the means to fully access those powers. But all that might be changing, because young Axl has become Odin, the Allfather, and a new era might be upon us. Axl, a directionless 20-something with few skills and any ambitions beyond beer and house parties, now finds himself at the centre of an epic tale, tasked with finding the human form of his destined beloved, the goddess Frigg. Axl’s quest – and misadventures in love – more or less frames the show’s first two seasons.

The series has a relaxed pace, quite unlike other shows of its genre. The best of the first season, and its greatest charm, lay in the feeling that it was in no rush to get anywhere in particular. Scenes go on a little bit longer than you’d expect, and the characters (and the series) are often happy sitting exactly where they happen to be. In fact, when I first tuned in, as much as I enjoyed the early episodes, I wasn’t sure what the story was, or intended to be. There didn’t seem to be a season there, far less a multi-year story! (There was also the question of how it was to negotiate the How I Met Your Mother problem, where every new female character to enter a room might be – and really probably isn’t – “the Frigg.”)

Emmett Skilton and Keisha Castle-Hughes

Johnsons has the honour of being the first New Zealand regular series I’ve ever really watched (though its big brother Australia has had a few, including Rob Sitch’s short-lived but brilliant political satire The Hollowmen, and the charming Please Like Me, recently picked up by the millennial demo cable channel Pivot). The show also boasts some familiar Kiwi faces, including a now grown-up Keisha Castle-Hughes (Whale Rider), as Axl’s flatmate and love interest Gaia. But the real strength of the series lies in its unabashed embracing of its local norms, especially in the show’s refreshing and forthright characterization of masculinity, in all of its diversity. Though the story is largely set in urban Auckland, the Johnsons are heartland New Zealanders, brought up in the (aptly chosen) Norsewood, several hours to the south. Along with their near-immortal surfer/stoner grandfather and family oracle Olaf (Ben Barrington, Top of the Lake), the Johnsons are brothers first and often adults second: they struggle with long-standing sibling tensions, competitiveness, and a tendency to let each other tread dangerous paths if they think it will be a laugh, even in matters of life and death. But there is a depth and often poignancy to their relationships that exceeds the frat boy implications of this account.

What becomes quickly apparently is that show’s major conceit – that unbeknownst to the rest of us, larger-than-life dramas are playing out in the offices, bedrooms, and bars of Auckland – works precisely because of its understatement. A new era is coming, and the Johnson brothers seem destined to be at the centre of it. But there is nothing epic about it, Norse or Hollywood. It all happens in small scenes, without grand special effects – at barbeques, in alleys behind bars, and in the stacks of public libraries. The groundedness of our boys (a fridge full of beer, the trials of daily life and loving) is what consistently keeps the narrative from floating off to Asgard. The result is a playful and sometimes even blasé attitude towards to the story’s own mythic centre: a half dozen gods and goddesses piling into an old station wagon to do battle against their enemies, or a goddess whose gift appears to be a preternatural ability to organize parties, or when one of the brothers starts dating someone who is literally Hel, etc. The series is often laugh-out-loud funny precisely when it plays straight, with a character simply laying out the absurdity of a situation in the plainest possible terms and then taking a pull from a pint, or when Axl filters new revelations through the limits of his Star Wars-centric imagination.  For example, here’s how Mike Johnson explained why he kept certain aspects of their family history from his younger brothers for so many years: “I mean, what was I meant to do? Tell a bunch of bloody kids their mother is a fucking tree?”

Premiering in 2011 on New Zealand’s TV3, The Almighty Johnsons barely made it to its current third season. After an underperforming second season, TV3 pulled the plug on the show. Fans immediately stepped up and initiated a grass-roots campaign to bring the show back. A month later, the network acquiesced and gave a green light for the current season, which launched in early July in NZ and in Canada. We are all the better for it.

The Almighty Johnsons’ third season continues on Space (in Canada) on Thursdays at 9PM EST, and on TV3 (in New Zealand) at 8:30PM NZST. And earlier this very afternoon, SyFy announced that it had secured the rights to the series for the U.S., with the first season to begin airing sometime early in 2014.

Mark Clamen is a writer, critic, film programmer and lifelong television enthusiast. He lives in Toronto, where he often lectures on television, film, and popular culture.

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