On the face of it, Australian comedy series Prison Pals has a pretty strong premise. Mix up a naïve psychologist with a zeal for prisoner rehabilitation, a cynical Scottish prison warden and a group of oddball prisoners who are put in contact with the Internet, gently simmer in mockumentary style and serve on YouTube. The characters almost write themselves, plus the series managed to film in what looks like a real prison. It looks well-funded and has an extensive production crew. And yet, with everything going for it, Prison Pals just falls flat.
Created and directed by Tim Stone and Jackson Juliani and backed by such Australian big-hitters as ABC TV Comedy and Film Victoria, Prison Pals is based around psychologist Eric Brof (Paul Goddard) as he attempts to rehabilitate prisoners by helping them build support networks through the internet. Faced with uncooperative and rowdy prisoners and an unsupportive warden, Brof’s rehab attempts are met with bewilderment, sabotage, or chaos. Paul Goddard is undoubtedly the strongest actor in this show and plays Brof with an understated anxiety. His internal battle between the urge to help the prisoners and disappointment that it’s not working is very well communicated.
It is obvious the show has attempted to make each of the prisoners memorable and individual, with the older and technophobic Baz; Andre, the sexual pervert; the very angry Casey and the violent Daryl. However, even with these stronger characters, there is a lot of depth missing. Andre is introduced as being in prison for sexual offenses, and for all eight episodes this is his defining characteristic. The Warden, played by Jim Cairns, is gruff and authoritarian; Andre is a pervert; Daryl likes fighting; Casey is angry, and this is all they ever are – two dimensional and after the first two episodes, very predictable. It doesn’t help that the acting for the supporting cast is average at best. A lot of the lines are stilted anyway, but the awkward delivery doesn’t help. Baz, played by Peter Richards is perhaps the only prisoner character who brings a level of humanity to the sluggish dialogue.
The direction, camera work, sound production and editing are all highly professional; it looks and sounds great. The problem with Prison Pals is that it wants very desperately to be a character-driven sit-com, but the characters come across as contrived and dull. The prisoners’ interactions with the internet, the basis of the show, are confusingly few and far between, however this doesn’t mean they’re the comedic payoff – they just come off as unimaginative. “Oh look, the prisoners are looking up porn, didn’t see that coming! And hey, the older guys are struggling to understand the interweb, how do they come up with this stuff?”
Maybe the show’s short running time, and short episodes made character development difficult, maybe the lines are supposed to seem awkward because of the mockumentary style – it’s possible. Most importantly, however, this show did not make me laugh even once; I didn’t care about any of the characters, and by the end watching it felt like a chore. I have seen worse comedy in the past – Prison Pals is not without positives – but for me, it fails to be what it wants to be. It fails as a mockumentary because the dialogue is unnatural, it fails as a character-driven comedy, because the characters are cardboard cut-outs and it fails as a parody of psychologists in the penal system because you barely see any psychology, fake or otherwise. Perhaps because of all this, the videos on YouTube have between 1500 and 6500 views each, and Prison Pals’ channel has only 698 subscribers.
Prison Pals tries hard, but unfortunately the result is boring, confused and ultimately not very funny.