Go Wests

by Amanda Spratt / 30 December, 2006
After Mercy Peak, writer Rachel Lang knew she had to do something outrageous.

Outrageous. That was writer Rachel Lang's original idea for a TV series. But fortunate; very fortunate.

Basing a series on an imaginary West Auckland family called the Wests turned out to be the best idea Lang ever had. Outrageous Fortune is just about to round off a highly successful second series on TV3 with a movie-length Christmas special, and already the money's there for a third series of 22 episodes next year. You don't get much more fortunate in the short-life-expectancy world of New Zealand television drama.

But Lang always had an inkling that a black-jeans-wearing, Lion-Red-drinking, pot-smoking family of career criminals would appeal to the Kiwi psyche. A stint in the US, where viewers love shows "where people live in enormous houses, and live glamorous, successful lives", made it clear how different we are, she says.

"New Zealanders don't see themselves as middle-class. We like to think we're down-to-earth battlers, who can knock the bastard off, then go for a beer and say, 'Yeah, it was no sweat.' We're not aspirational like Americans. We like success, but we're suspicious of it - and suspicious of things that 'couldn't really happen here'. The Wests aren't a threat to ordinary New Zealanders. They're like us, but naughtier."

And, says Lang, despite the robberies, occasional kidnapping, larceny and lust, the Wests are the ideal family. Seriously.

"I know it sounds like a joke, but they're good sorts, with the kind of values that New Zealand can be proud of - resourcefulness, no bullshit, really good hearts. The Wests are all about values, and what is or is not moral - though it may not be always obvious."

The idea for Outrageous Fortune was woven from a number of different strands: Lang says she doesn't work along the epiphanous "big bang" theory of creation. "I think of it like a sump, a drain. Things go into my head and sit there long enough till an idea comes out of it."

She pitched a concept about a family who turned to crime to TVNZ executives years ago, along with an idea for what was to become the drama Mercy Peak. The network went with Mercy Peak, but Lang still thought a criminal family saga would work.

After Mercy Peak's death, she confronted the prospect of unemployment by pooling her talents with writer James Griffin.

The pair knew they had to do something, well, outrageous. And together they created it.

"Mercy Peak was a good show," says Lang, "but I could tell it was too subtle and it ended up on Friday night where good shows go to die. I felt quite frustrated by that, and I thought the next time I do something I'm going to make it so that no one will be able to ignore it. I wanted big things to happen."

She wanted to try a "more fun" version of the white trash Van der Velter family from Mercy Peak, she knew she wanted a strong matriarch as the focal character and she had long pegged former Van der Velter son Anthony Starr, who plays the double role of Van and Jethro in Outrageous Fortune, as "one to watch".

Now he is watched by more than 200,000 New Zealanders every week, as are West household matriarch Cheryl (Robyn Malcolm), struggling to get her brood of thieves to go straight while she has an affair with conflicted detective Wayne Judd; Cheryl's husband Wolf, supposedly dead after a heist that went wrong, but never far from the action; aspiring model Pascalle making out with a Fijian-Indian called Bruce; duplicitous 16-year-old Loretta; eccentric grandpa Ted; and big-hearted Munter, Van's best mate - the character Lang thinks is the one who's truly good and wise - plus assorted cops, friends and petty crims.

The interplay between the good, the moral and the illegal has always fascinated Lang, and it loomed large when she came up with the idea for Outrageous Fortune. It was a time when prostitution was being legalised, and everyone wanted their 15 minutes of fame, but not for actually being good at anything.

"I had also just heard on the news that the median income for females was $14,000," says Lang, "and I just wondered why more people didn't turn to crime. Part of what Outrageous Fortune is about is the flexibility of the moral universe."

Sounds deep, but the show is far from heavy: Lang wanted something that was fun, that people could talk about with colleagues around the water-cooler. After all, she says, people see enough misery in real life.

No one could accuse her of making the show too serious. It's hilariously raunchy - series two has Loretta acting out her sexual fantasies with an older man (ex-Shortland Street killer Shane Cortese), and Pascalle discovers that she accidentally slept with her half-brother. Lang makes no apologies: she prefers sex to violence, "and it was all part of the cunning plan to get people to watch".

And, she says, the writers do not go out to shock.

Lang says she owes the show's success to a strong cast of "fantastic" actors, a great production team, great support from TV3 and good luck. Unlike a novel, she says, TV doesn't rest and fall on one person's talent. She loves working with partner-in-crime-writing James Griffin: he's the funny one, she says. She's better at "emotional truth": "I ask things like, would the characters actually think/feel/do that?"

Despite Outrageous Fortune's popular appeal and its success at last year's Qantas Television Awards (it won six gongs), they walked away empty-handed this year - an outcome Lang had predicted.

In fact, she bet on it with colleagues. A former judge on awards juries, she knew how trivial the decision-making process could be.

"It's like boarding school. It's a very small industry. It's very much, 'They got everything last year, let's give someone else a go.' We're not like Hollywood where being successful is really good in its own right. We'll probably win next year because there won't be any other dramas."

She's not disappointed. In fact, she's thrilled with the fortune of her outrageous cast and crew. And now the Wests are even packing up the Holden and going overseas: the show started screening on Australia's Channel 9 this month, and next year they take on Britain. Lang sees no reason why the Poms won't be able to crack open a can and enjoy an hour with the Wests; bogans are an international culture, she says.

And there'll be no shortage of outrageous storylines in next year's third series.

"I can definitely say we will go where the Wests have not gone before, including into death, but I cannot say who, or how, and also birth, but I will not say who, or how. And also, the important matter of someone's enormous wanger. But you'll have to keep watching."

Outrageous Fortune: The Movie, TV3, Boxing Day, 8.30pm.

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