Dads drop and roll with the lunches

A FREQUENT complaint about locally made shows is their over-reliance on tried-and-true formulas: the cop show, the hospital soap, the frothy love affairs between bright young things at an inner-city legal practice.

Which is perhaps why few, if anyone, shed tears when Channel Nine decided several years ago to jettison its interchangeable cop-shop shows and the unlamented Sea Patrol and develop contemporary domestic dramas.

Following closely on the heels of Tricky Business comes House Husbands, which cast member Rhys Muldoon describes as a ''small 'c' comedy'' and centres on four vastly different men who look after their primary school-age children while their partners and spouses earn a living.

Nine warmed to the concept, which taps into a prevalent but largely unexplored trend.

For producer and co-creator Drew Proffitt, the premise of men trying to fulfil their roles as fathers was rife with dramatic and comic possibilities.

''Emotionally, men approach situations differently, often in a comic way,'' he says. The families that feature in TV dramas usually include teens or young adults nearing independence.

By focusing on families with younger children, House Husbands was also an opportunity to home in on the loaded issue of working parents - how they are judged; juggle time, workloads and personal needs; and their guilt about working.

Muldoon's character, Mark, works part time in marketing - a running gag is that no one, himself included, seems to know exactly what his job is - while his doctor wife (Natalie Saleeba) works long and stressful hospital hours.

''He's a man and therefore a failure, I suppose, at running a family, and makes a number of bad errors along the way,'' says Muldoon, a former Play School host who has a daughter, four, one year younger than his onscreen daughter. Mark is mildly threatened by his wife's career, which doesn't bode well for their relationship.

His brother-in-law, Kane (Gyton Grantley), is in a relationship with Tom (Tim Campbell), raising Tom's orphaned niece.

The most senior member of the quartet is retired builder Lewis (Gary Sweet), who has a young daughter with second wife, Gemma (Julia Morris), and hopes to be a more attentive and committed father than he was for his now-adult children.

Estranged from his wife, Nicola (Leah de Niese), Justin (Firass Dirani) is battling for custody of their twins and newborn, having sabotaged his professional football career in ways that brings to mind fallen stars Brendan Fevola and Ben Cousins.

In many ways, Justin is the springboard to events that bring together this unlikely quartet of kindred spirits.

There's a lot at stake for Justin - his marriage, his career, the welfare of his children, a hedonistic lifestyle - which is why Dirani was keen to play him.

''The way I pictured Jason,'' he explains during a break in filming at Port Melbourne Primary School, which doubles as the school where the husbands congregate daily, ''is you have these footballers with so much talent, so much going on; they often grew up in rural areas, they come in and start earning so much money, and so much attention is thrust upon them. There's so much pressure with the job.

''When they slip up it's … because of the pressure and being so young and not being used to the spotlight and having so much attention. I could relate to it in that sense; I pictured myself in that storyline.''

While the actor best known for playing John Ibrahim in Underbelly: The Golden Mile and Gary in The Straits half-seriously jokes about wanting some of the lighter comedy scenes in the event House Husbands is renewed for a second series, he admits that the pace and demands have challenged him.

''I've never done Home and Away or Neighbours. I'm not from that mould, so for me to receive [script] amendments the night before and learn them the next day, go on set and make them work, that's a challenge,'' he says. ''I've been stretched in that sense as an actor and that's been great, but you have to be thrown into the deep end.''

Earlier this year, Dirani criticised those soaps - and, by extension, Australian TV in general - for its lack of ethnic diversity. Here, however, the Lebanese background of his character has been written into the story.

''I always figured they'd slip it in somewhere,'' he says. ''By the way, the reason [Justin] is caramel flavoured is because he's Lebanese, which I don't mind. Growing up watching TV, the same actors were recycled in every show and I always thought to myself, there in my dad's convenience store, 'If I ever become one of those actors, I'm going to give someone else a chance.' I remember being that kid, that teenager going, 'I want a chance.'''

But he admits that broadening the cultural perspectives of our dramas ''is a slow movement''. ''It might not even change in my generation. Diversity has to be suitable, it has to be suitable for the character. I'm not saying let's just cast a bunch of ethnics on TV, another Fat Pizza.''

Though House Husbands' storylines tend to be driven by the men, Proffitt says it's equally about strong female characters.

''The flipside of the stay-at-home dad thing is the working mother and the associated guilt thing and the pressure that comes with that,'' he says. Importantly, he wanted the show to reflect a broad range of family types.

''We wanted to create a suburban gay couple, for want of a better term,'' he says, referring to Kane and Tom, whose same-sex relationship is not emphasised.

''We want to show a variety of aspects of being a father: that there isn't one rule book of what makes a good family. All our guys approach it in their own way, and it's not necessarily the right or wrong way.

''We're not trying to create a new ideal of what a father should be, we're just showing four different types of fathers. Fathers make mistakes and do sometimes behave ridiculously, so we're not trying to do a show about the new ideal dad. At the same time, we're not setting in stone how a father should behave.''

House Husbands airs on Sunday at 8.30pm on Channel Nine.

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