Clever, sober and compelling
Joe Hildebrand with the four Indian companions he accompanies on their journey to experience the real Australia.
Show of the week: Dumb, Drunk & Racist, ABC2, Wednesday, 9.30pm
IT'S HARD to know where to begin with a show such as this, but let's start with: great title. If you want to get people to engage in a difficult issue, a headline like that is certainly a strong start. (Although a friend's first comment when I mentioned I was about to watch this was, ''Is it about the Poms?'')
It's not about the Poms. (Is it racist to call the English ''Poms''?) It's about us: a six-part series in which Daily Telegraph journo Joe Hildebrand recruits four Indian citizens to come and experience the real Australia, and decide for themselves if we are in fact stupid, sozzled bigots.
Hildebrand's starting point is Australia's reputation in India, which was thoroughly trashed following a spate of violent attacks on Indian students, primarily in Melbourne, including a fatal stabbing. Indian media grabbed hold of the issue like a Jack Russell with a rat and our image has still not recovered.
Before those attacks, education was worth about $2 billion annually - much of that thanks to students from the subcontinent. That figure has dropped substantially and a survey in India by the producers of this series discovered that about 45 per cent considered Australians of average or below-average intelligence, poorly educated, functionally alcoholic - and racist.
Most would not choose to travel here because even those who think we're not all racists believe enough of us are to make visiting here a danger. At the same time, of course, we love to think of ourselves not just as the clever country but as deeply tolerant and egalitarian. Who's right?
Attempting to answer that question are four middle-class volunteers: law student Amer, education consultant Radhika, newsreader Gurmeet and call-centre worker Mahima. The latter three come on-board with fairly fixed opinions. Radhika can't in all conscience advise parents to send their children to Australia to study. She considers it too risky. Gurmeet has been covering the international news for the past few years and is convinced racial attacks here are rife. And then there's poor Mahima, 24 years old and from a strict Hindu family, who every day is subjected to verbal attacks from Australians on the other end of the phone line.
Amer is simply curious. He was planning to go to the University of Sydney until his parents talked him out of it and he's relishing the chance to make up his mind for himself. All this is tidily covered in the first five minutes or so, then our crew arrive in Sydney and embark on their adventure and for the viewer - especially a reader of broadsheet newspapers, watcher of the national broadcaster and, probably, consumer of dry white wine - it's tough going. Because the thing is, on the one hand Australia truly does represent a successful multicultural experiment - it's hard to think of another nation where so many races live in so great a degree of harmony. At the same time, it's no longer possible to insist that ours is a nation free of racism.
As Hildebrand introduces his guests to, let's say, less-tolerant members of the population and less-glorious moments in our recent history, it makes uncomfortable viewing.
Framing the whole thing in a light-hearted way makes it a bit more digestible, but that also has its downside. Sometimes Hildebrand's a bit too much with the ''Ha-ha, look at how racist we are!''. Sometimes we feel as if what's at issue needs to be taken more seriously. But it's hard to imagine how else you could cover this subject without repelling viewers in droves. His companions are terrific characters who give us something to hold on to during what is a sometimes gruelling, sometimes excruciating but always compelling ride. Episode one is strong; next week's will knock you for six.