Turning to suburban nostalgia by Stephanie Wescott

Photo by Tom Rumble on Unsplash

What could be more iconic than the sound of a sliding door opening into a living room (a sneaky back entrance for close friends only), one that leads into the beating heart of the home, its kitchen, complete with laminate benches, cream-toned cabinets, a small congregation around its island, one of them, a woman, a gloved and yellow hand, smoking a durry out the open window?

 The younger one, the daughter, picks up the ringing house phone. She’s lost her job at the call centre, the one she didn’t really want anyway, but can’t believe she lost, what with her people skills, she knew herself above it, her talent wasted and unused. She plonks on the couch and with a flick of her hair rebukes her mother’s exasperated pleading, that it’s time to get her life together, time to sort out her dysfunctional marriage. In another episode: ‘You’re a grown woman’, says the mother, and the camera zooms in on the daughter’s pierced belly button and hand in a jar of Tiny Teddies. The daughter wants to go to Fountain Lakes, a fictional, but familiar, Melbourne shopping centre, where the two women fulfil their consumerist fantasies, wandering into the homewares store where they are unknowingly patronised by Prue and Trude, the snooty assistants, have a cappuccino at an unnamed café that’s built as if from a template of every other one. 

In this world, the lives of each of the characters unfolds within a modern suburban house. A green tiled roof, speckled brick exterior, and neat, low-maintenance garden: a style of house obedient like a stamp. Inside, the drama is domestic, small: the relationship turmoils of the friend for whom ‘nothing goes right’ (she wailed this once, after she discovered the cupboard emptied of Dippity Bix); the woman, who owns the house, her upcoming wedding is marred by troubles, and her husband is busy on his quest to build the zeitgeist sausage; and the daughter, with the lackadaisical husband who works at the nearby hi-fi store, he stuffs up often and is compelled to repent. 

 If you’ve been paying attention, you might have noticed that Kath and Kim, first airing in 2002, has experienced a recent resurgence. It’s now streamed on Netflix, and a Facebook group, titled, Da Kath and Kim Appreciation Society, boasts 61,000 members. It’s ‘About’ tab reads:

It’s Noice, it’s different, it’s un-yew-sual, it’s… Da Kath and Kim appreciation society!

Calling all foxy morons and hunks o’ spunk out there… anyone who knows what a hard life it is being a house wife and a horn bag – you will all sympathise with how exhausting it is running around maintaining a frizzy perm while keeping up with all the best TAFE courses. After all, we’re only yuman!

So, what does da Kath and Kim society pacifically entail? When things are up the proverbial we endeavor to sit down in front of the box, put our feet up and sip on a nice glass of cardonnay (it’s French – the H is silent). So give it a bone and start watching Kath and Kim! Of course, only unnatural beauties can join my club. Cruel? Cruel but fair.

 

This renaissance may seem utterly random, but of course as a cultural product, it has existed as an undercurrent since it first aired. In Australia, you could describe something as nice, different, unusual, and feel safe that your audience would understand your reference. But as I’ve found myself recently, more so than ever, up in the early hours, unable to sleep after scrolling through the early pandemic horrors unfolding on Twitter, and switching on Kath & Kim, I’ve been thinking about what its revival might reveal about what we’re seeking, missing, longing for.

As an antidote to the middle-of-the-night panic, Kath & Kim promises the soothing comfort of routine and predictability. The familiar suburban setting, a good room, reserved for special occasions, the backyard spa, curious interfering neighbours, its trivial, local concerns, its origins in the early 2000s when climate devastation was a niche concern, all bundle into a neat promise of brief respite for a racing mind. 

 Our lives in 2020 are enshrouded in unending terrors. We transitioned from an horrific bushfire season to a once in one-hundred-year pandemic with no time to take a breath in between. In January, images of charred native animals sent me into a grief spiral. In February, I watched ABC 7:30’s coverage of Wuhan and felt new waves of horror; it seemed impossible to believe. I thought, hoped, surely, that won’t happen here. Then, the following month, I felt immense relief when my premier said we couldn’t leave our houses anymore.

 On one particular early morning, soothing myself from coils of panic with a few episodes of Kath & Kim, I realised its value exists in the deep nostalgia presented in every episode. Perhaps, others, like me, find themselves pining for an ordinary, predictable, Australian suburban life that no longer exists. Over the summer it felt as if life as I knew it, the version with clear and feasible hopes for the future, the luxury of looking forward to summer as rest, instead of fear and dread, had disintegrated. In the final months of 2019, and the early ones of 2020, many who were asleep to, or afraid of, what the new normal of the Australian summer meant were jolted into an awakening. Now, to share the words the new normal, means something entirely different. 

Despite the cultural cringe, forcing us to look our own naffness in the face, its popularity makes sense. In Kath & Kim, you could zip up to the local shopping complex without contemplating your carbon output, you could take a plastic bag without simultaneously seeing its future inside a turtle’s stomach. Our renewed environmental consciousness is a good thing, of course, and the burden of one’s knowledge of their own contribution is both right and necessary. But, at the same time, mourning an era when it all wasn’t so urgent, when we still had time, serves a specific purpose in a moment; especially this one, with so little reprieve. Since Kath & Kim aired, we’ve lost one reality after another. The new one, the one we’re calling normal, knowing of course how very far we are from normalcy on the spectrum we find ourselves, makes nihilists of the most hopeful. 

Kath & Kim now serves as a portal; we reach into it to spend time in an age that felt far more optimistic. Like all nostalgic objects, its function is specific, and important. Until the time when a friend can once again pop through the sliding door unannounced, we can hug without fear of discovering we might be a dreaded asymptomatic carrier, and a visit to our own version of Fountain Lakes doesn’t require agile maneuvering, I’m comforted by the nice, different, unusual, and lost, and relative, innocence of the early 2000s.