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ABC finds Utopia is in the public service

Date

Phillip Thomson

Rob Sitch and cast of Utopia

Rob Sitch and cast of Utopia

Judging from episode one, there is little glory for public servants in the new ABC series Utopia, but plenty of opportunity to weep in solidarity.

The boss of the the Nation Building Authority, Tony, has been lured from years of service in the private sector to head up an ambitiously named government organisation set up to, well, build Australia.

Instead, he spends much of his time dealing with a rogue staff member trying to change the organisation's logo, a seemingly innocuous tweak that could bring the whole $4 billion public-private investment deal overseeing major infrastructure projects to a standstill.

Tony (Rob Sitch) is soon drowning in the land of the lanyard and noble time wasters.

"We had a little bit of a head start after writing The Hollowmen and we were able to draw on some of these concepts," said one of the Working Dog principals, Tom Gleisner.

The take-away for Canberra's public servants from this series will be the characters.

Chief among them will be Jim (Anthony "Lehmo" Lehmann), a liaison between the authority and the government. He is slow on the uptake, but lightning-fast at posting to Twitter. He is as rapid in taking on a new project as he is to abandon the previous one.

There may be a few men walking around the national capital renamed Jim behind their backs in the coming weeks.

Many public servants will consider themselves, even if quietly, a Nat (Celia Pacquola), Tony's second in charge. Just when you think she can save the day with her common sense, her skills are used as a weapon against what she stands for in order to push through an absurd idea.

If there is a triumph for public servants hidden among the nondescript furniture, it is that a chunk of episode one's problems come from the political realm via Jim and his slavish, weather-vane-style devotion to the media, which he confuses for public opinion.

"I'm going to leave this with you," Jim says to Nat after discussing one nasty drama. It is a simple line, but the way he says it, it is like he is doing her a favour.

Note recent real-world reports of people "making it up as they went" with only a press release and some business cards to defend themselves in the first 12 months of NBN Co.

Of course, it is impossible to tell from episode one whether the series' portrayal of the bureaucracy will cut to the truth or turn out to be mimicry. Either way, it will be a challenge to hold the attention of Canberra's public servants.

They will come to this with a high threshold for bastards and weasels. They have the best tales of bungling and they are all true. And when they hear the double-speak ("we need to fast-track the memorandum of understanding" and "flexible as to its implementation"), they will want it to sing because they have seen how impenetrable language leads to major disasters (and no beat-up story about spending on coffee machines in a tabloid newspaper can describe the casual but jaw-dropping waste they have seen with their own eyes).

Gleisner said the production team spoke to several of people who had first-hand experience of the daily unpredictabilities of working with and in government authorities, many of whom carried the message that no matter how well you plan an urban renewal project, "you always run into a particular tree".

Karsten (Toby Truslove) – the show's passionate, "verging on pointless" graphic designer with a love of mood boards and long-winded ideation sessions – seemed more like a character from the bureaucracies of Sydney or Melbourne. The show did not appear to be pegged in a particular location, although we know it is not Canberra because of dialogue.

Canberra viewers who yell out "the needle" when they see Telstra tower in a fast-cut, passage-of-time sequence should not miss episode three, apparently devoted to a work trip to the national capital to discuss the feasibility of a very fast train.

Utopia, 8.30pm, Wednesdays on ABC 

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