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Seven Sharp's Jeremy Wells needs to take the gloves off

Seven Sharp co-hosts Hilary Barry and Jeremy Wells. Photo/TVNZ

New Seven Sharp co-host Jeremy Wells once said, "If you don’t look brave, you look particularly lame.”

Jeremy Wells on Seven Sharp: good idea or the fulfilment of some ancient prophecy heralding the end of times? When the over-optimistically named Seven Sharp replaced Close Up in 2013, it seemed to be aiming for a local version of jokey Australian news-panel show The Project. Heather Du Plessis-Allan visited then-Prime Minister John Key’s office for a tour of his toilet. It was the sort of pointless trainwreckery Mikey Havoc and Jeremy “Newsboy” Wells excelled in as semi-feral youth-television guerrillas. It didn’t work for Seven Sharp. Hosts changed like deckchairs on the Titanic.

Then came the Hosking years, from which some relief was provided by Wells’s “Like Mike” Radio Hauraki impressions, so preternaturally pitch-perfect in their epic smugness as to force you to seriously consider the possibility of demonic possession.

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Now, Three is making an excellent fist of The Project. Seven Sharp has pinned its hopes on replacing Hosking and Toni Street with Hilary Barry and Hosking-impersonator Wells. Back in 2004, when he was the poker-faced presenter of Eating Media Lunch’s mentally scarring provocations – the Target take-off, heroically ill-advised porno spoof Anal ManaI interviewed Wells. He may have been serious when he said, presciently as it turns out, that the inspiration for his Newsboy persona was … Mike Hosking. Even in a world where television eats itself like so much media lunch, it does your head in.

It may be doing Wells’s head in, too. Barry is incapable of sounding nervous, except in the presence of Oprah. “The truth is you might get [Extreme Cake Makers] back on the schedule if we don’t rate as highly as they did,” she promised brightly on the first night. Good joke. It was downhill from there. Wells seemed to be having vocal problems. A cold? First-night wobbles? He looked as if he wasn’t quite in the room; more ghost than host.

It is hard to tell how the chemistry will go, such was the cracking pace the show set. Reporter Lucas de Jong did a sort of infomercial for an extreme-climbing company. Well, we know better than to expect current affairs. There was an item about women who are trying to introduce free school lunches. Good idea? No follow-up analysis to speak of. Best item by far: Anika Moa hilariously fan-girling Céline Dion while auditioning to open for her when she comes to New Zealand. Wells allowed himself some irony, going for a record number of uses of the word “songstress”. It remains to be seen if irony works in TVNZ 1’s stiff, ritualised news culture.

The show’s format is a shocker: two hosts cling forlornly to each other in an unwelcoming, inexplicably pink digital space. No in-studio interviews to warm up the dynamic. Why on Earth don’t they bring Moa in? She’s fearless.

The second night, reporter Maiki Sherman did a personal report from Waitangi for Seven Sharp. Over on The Project, Kanoa Lloyd did the same. Both items were highlights for their chutzpah and heart. Sherman’s piece included a little in-joke embedded in a dig at negativity in the media about our national day. In the collage of headlines was, “Mike Hosking: Why do we bother with Waitangi?”

Seven Sharp needs more of that boldness; some of the laughs and, when required, the tears you get on the opposition. At its best, Campbell Live managed heart, humour and analysis. So, on a good night, does The Project.

Barry and Wells are smart, talented, charismatic broadcasters. They should go for it. In that 2004 interview, Wells laid it out: “When the camera’s rolling, it gives you some kind of strange courage. If you don’t look brave, you look particularly lame,” he said. “It’s all or nothing.”

Seven Sharp, TVNZ 1, weeknights, 7.00pm. The Project, Three, weeknights, 7.00pm.

This article was first published in the February 17, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.