When Benjamin Law first sold the option to his best-selling 2010 memoir The Family Law, he knew that whether it became a television series or a film, it was going to break ground in the local pop cultural landscape.
“We knew that it was going to be groundbreaking for Australian television in terms of representation, but the dirty secret is it’s not that hard to break ground in Australian television,” said Law. “You could put any family that’s even marginally different on screen and everyone’s like ‘wow, what a first for Australian television!’. As much as that says a little bit about our show, it says just as much about what Australian television has been.”
A series of essays about a Chinese Australian family growing up in suburban Queensland, the book’s small screen adaptation of the same name became a groundbreaker for a whole range of reasons outside of its representation. Debuting in 2016 and running for three seasons, The Family Law was a landmark program for Australian broadcaster SBS and became their most viewed show On Demand ever. Premiering on Facebook before airing free-to-air, the first episode was viewed more than 1.1 million times on the social media platform. The series not only opened the door for other types of shows representing Asian Australian talent on television – like Ronny Chieng: International Student (2017 – present), Homecoming Queens (2018 – present) and Hungry Ghosts (2020) – but it became an incubator for the next wave of Aussie talent that was more reflective of the world we live in.
When The Family Law first hit shelves, naturally producers were interested. Yet as Law took meetings with companies who shared their thoughts on “what they saw the show as being”, he began to see a limited approach. “A lot of them just came back to ‘ethnic comedy’,” he said. “I love ethnic comedies, I grew up with Acropolis Now, Fresh Off The Boat is a really great modern update of that kind of comedy, Kim’s Convenience, but The Family Law was a collection of essays and some were about cultural identity but most weren’t.”
It was a meeting with producer and writer Tony Ayres from Matchbox Pictures that sparked his interest. “He was like ‘this could just be a really great comedy about divorce’,” said Law. “There were all the cultural specifics, like they weren’t going to whitewash the family or anything like that, but the ethnicity was not the engine of the story. Just as whiteness isn’t usually the driver of white stories, you know? Friends is a white show, but it’s not necessarily about whiteness.”
Founded in 2008 by Ayres and several other Australian filmmakers, Law said Matchbox gave the production an advantage because Ayres and executive producer Debbie Lee where Chinese Australian and “had skin in the game and experience in the field”.
“They were of the generation of screen makers who had to fight and are still fighting for all of this shit so people like me don’t have to think about it,” he said. “Looking back, I was so grateful … I didn’t need to have that conversation about diversity because the diversity was already at the top because we had Asian Australian bosses essentially, who are champions at doing this already.”
A best-selling author, journalist and award-winning playwright, the show became Law’s first experience working on scripted television. It was also a first for much of the 90 per cent Asian cast and crew. “It’s a reflection on how few opportunities there are like The Family Law where we do have majority Asian creatives and cast, because it actually became like an incubator and a promoter and a platform of talent,” said Law. “So many of our cast were either veterans of screen - but they had to move overseas in order to get work, like both actors who play the parents – Fiona Choi and Anthony Brandon Wong were both based in the United States – or the rest of them were working, but on stage or in small parts. I’m not going to take credit for their successes since, but it has been really gratifying to see people like Trystan Go end up on Frayed on the ABC, Kimie Tsukakoshi who’s now in Channel 10 kids fantasy series The Bureau Of Magical Things, and Takaya Honda on Neighbours… Our alumni have become these huge names across the screen and it’s like ‘oh, the talent’s there!’. Well, the talent was also fostered through projects like ours and others.”
As one of the breakout stars from the show, Tsukakoshi had been working on stage prior to the show when she landed the role of Heidi Thomson. “The Family Law was one of my first professional, bigger screen gigs so I didn’t have anything else to compare it to at the time,” she said. “But looking back on it now, just the vibe on set was amazing because everybody was so excited to be there. Everybody knew this was different.”
As the star of Channel 10’s The Bureau Of Magical Things – which premiered internationally on Nickelodeon – Tsukakoshi has gone on to land a mix of television and film roles including Secret City, Rip Tide, The Other Guy and Great White. Yet it’s The Family Law that stands out as truly special in her mind. “The writing and the humour was so specific to our culture and yet relatable to everyone, I don’t know how Ben Law and the writers did it,” she said. “All my family in Singapore watched it at the time and were like ‘I’m Jenny, I’m Jenny!’ and I had to tell them ‘you can’t all be Jenny’.”
For Law – who is an ever-present face in the Australian media landscape – he’s “stoked” that he still gets people coming up to him in the street saying The Family Law is the first time they saw themselves represented on television. Largely because he knows how instrumental that was to him growing up.
“I know what that feels like because I have those conversations with people like Elizabeth Chong or Lee Lin Chin: these were the first people I saw on TV usually in factual kind of roles, not in scripted entertainment,” he said. “Those scraps of representation were really important to me growing up, going ‘oh my God there’s someone else who’s Chinese, who’s speaking in an Australian accent out there’.”
Among all the positives, however, he still feels there’s a lot of work to be done in the local film and television industry. “I still don’t think we’ve properly cracked just incidentally any time we turn on a TV - whether it’s factual or scripted programming - an Australia that looks like the country we encounter when we walk out the door,” said Law. “I just don’t think that’s a huge ask … I always go back to the stat that proportionally there are as many Asian Australians as there are black Americans in the United States. I think the comparisons between our screen industries in terms of those representations is a stark reminder of how much work we need to do.”