Worth a look: Public servants on TV

It’s always excruciating to see your own job portrayed on screen.

A shot from Gliding OnHospital doctors cringe at the impossibly good-looking medical staff whose romantic dramas are played out over comatose patients. Firefighters remind us that very rarely do they save kittens from burning skyscrapers. And let’s not even get into journalists, whose coffee-stained desk-jockey reality bears little resemblance to the heroic antics of All The President’s Men.

But we’ve been wondering if the changing face of public servants on screen tells us something about New Zealand – how it’s changed, and what we might have become.

Those of a certain age will remember fondly the characters from Gliding On. Set in a 1980s office, these ministry employees are lazy, work-shy but as comforting as a warm pair of slippers. You can see the overflowing ashtrays and sexist wisecracks at NZonscreen.com and see how things (sort of) were before Roger Douglas swung his axe. 

Fast forward a decade and you’ll see a very different kind of public servant on screen. The era of reality TV introduced swashbuckling government employees busting paua smuggling rings and catching drug smugglers while customs dogs sniffed luggage and caught the baddies. No more paper-strewn offices and tea trollies – the post Rogernomics public service was a lean, mean fighting machine, and so were its TV heroes.

Into the 2010s, innovative new comedy has found a home online, with short web-series showcasing upcoming New Zealand talent. Once again, public servants are in the spotlight. But the comfy banter of the 80s is replaced by power-hungry enforcer types. It’s the same kind of excruciatingly embarrassing watch as The Office, but instead of Ricky Gervais and the “chilled out entertainer”, we have women who take their jobs a bit too seriously.

In Super City II, Madeleine Sami plays an officer at WUNZ – Work and Unemployment New Zealand – whose attitude is almost as grimly sadistic as her work practices. You can catch it on YouTube and cringe as she tells a sickness beneficiary applicant “if you can wipe your arse, you can wash dishes”. 

And then there’s The Adventures of Suzy Boon, New Zealand’s worst immigration officer. Chewing lollies, she’s cheerfully racist about her clients, more interested in internet dating than patrolling our borders.

The series was dreamed up by Roberto Nascimento, a Brazilian who came here in his early 20s and had his fair share of dealings with immigration officers.

“Until I became a permanent resident, my experience with immigration wasn’t great,” he says. “They were always very rude to me. But the series is more about office politics. At the end of the day it’s a bunch of people working in an office, and she’s awkward and trying to fit in.”

We’re not going to draw any conclusions about what these two series tell us about how the public sees the people that serve them – Roberto’s very clear Suzy Boon’s drawn from his own experience. All the same, we’re wondering if the public service has reached a milestone – where our jobs are just as inaccurately portrayed on screen as anyone else’s.

By Jessica Williams & Kirsten Windelov