A few nights ago at the Standard, I found myself agreeing with a friend (Zoe, who else?) on the topic of John Safran’s Race Relations (you can watch the whole episode on the ABC website here). Despite my railing, it seems audiences love his personal-essay-on-screen style. Audiences are daft. For example, why do the opening credits imply that the show is going to help us with race relations, but the show itself focuses exclusively on Safran’s experience. Where are the Hindus, dammit?
Nonetheless, this is not the shows fatal flaw. No, the problem with Race Relations is that we have no idea what the man is thinking.
Safran, as many will know, has a very distinctive voice. A weedy twang that we’ve become accustomed to, whether interrupting the indignant stuttering of Father Bob on Triple J or in his previous incarnations versus God, racing around the world or hosting a music jamboree. It is somewhat ironic then, that most of what we’ve heard so far on Race Relations is Safran’s seemingly ironic musings on retro books about intermarriage. Episode Four was no different. The show opens with Safran holding up a book, and explaining its thesis: Asian women are more marriageable as they age better and stay attractive longer. Presumably, that’s ironic right? Presumably we’re supposed to laugh a bit and think, but of course race doesnt’ really have anything to do with longevity of attraction.
Safran then goes about asking four of his ex-girlfriends if they could request their mothers to make out with him, to see how well attraction ages. Logical, I know. Already in the series, Safran has run around like a naughty little boy stealing panties of ex-girlfriends so that he can sniff them blindfolded. He’s also already asked and procured a make out session with an Aryan woman in Anne Franks’ attic. With that in mind, we come to the living rooms of four mothers with their daughters, three of whom end up making out with John Safran on air. Like with most of the series, it’s essentially one sketch where the punchline is “it’s for research, right!”
The first woman hesitates, but agrees in the end. The next seems to consent a little more readily. The third’s reaction isn’t shown. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the last mother, a traditionally dressed non-English speaking Japanese woman declines a kiss on the the mouth, but compromises with a kiss on the cheek.
We’ll never know how many women Safran approached, or how that third woman responded. What we can be sure of is that it’s totally unfair to be asked to kiss a documentary maker, and a former friend of your daughter while the cameras are rolling. Noone wants to be uncooperative, let their daughter down, or indeed, seem uncool on the television.
Now I’m not saying Safran and his team wouldn’t have respected the explicitly stated wishes of anyone they film. They probably did. The bigger issue is that which is less explicit. Did those women feel like props? Do they have partners who might have problems with it? Were they were given time to think about the request? How did the ex-girlfriend who completely freaked out mid-kiss deal with it afterwards? Do any of them regret it?
All this comes back to that problem I raised earlier: Safran’s lack of editorial voice. See, when you ask a rhetorical question like “do Asian women stay attractive longer?”, you also need to equip your audience with an easy and obvious answer. Aside from the one-sketch-ness of it, Safran fails to deliver thoughts on the matter outside “Yes! Definitely prefer the older Asian woman!”. In doing so, Safran fails to convince us that he’s thought about what he’s doing: a unsettling trait when what you’re doing is treating awkward sex acts with the same offhandedness as a lab experiment.