Despite a stated aim to guide people through the minefield of inter-cultural dating, Race Relations was mostly another vehicle for Safran’s unique blend of heart-on-sleeve social evangelism and bum-clenchingly embarrassing stunts. Some fell flat (despite the great build-up, the revelation to his endlessly supportive family and friends that his marriage to a relative of Osama Bin Laden was a joke at the expense of his childhood friend was like watching a child with their first whoopee cushion) but we were also taken to places few expected they would ever see on national television, let alone prime time on the ABC.
As a television show Race Relations certainly had its flaws. Like a modern Hollywood blockbuster it was sometimes big on spectacular set pieces but lacking in direction. Press has tended to focus on these events – the crucifixion in the Philippines, the knicker-sniffing, the Palestinian sperm donation, his makeovers as the world’s oddest looking black man and least attractive ladyboy – but this is to ignore the moments of genuine pathos that have made the show so watchable. Anyone who saw the look on Safran’s face as he climbed out of a freshly dug hole alongside his mother’s grave or watched him biting off more than he could emotionally chew as he attempted to interview his ex-girlfriend and her husband will tell you there was more to Race Relations than Borat-style shock tactics.
The emotion was mostly raw enough for the camera to tell the story alone, but I was still left with lots of questions at the end. What did it feel like to be taunted, flogged and crucified by a crowd of Filipinos? What kind of feelings surfaced when he found himself pouring his heart out to a Japanese surrogate mother? None of us was looking to Safran to answer the world’s race problems, but a greater degree of genuinely personal insight based on these extraordinary experiences would have provided a more satisfying conclusion. Maybe that’s been kept for the DVD extras, but if so it’s a shame.
Still, none of this is to deny that Race Relations was amongst the very best television in 2009. My desire for more is based on the quality of what we have already received. Turning the reality genre on its head by turning the camera around might appear self-indulgent but for me it was an exceptionally brave move – like reading out your teenage diary to strangers. Rarely do we see our stars so vulnerable and exposed and I think - however contrived some of it might have been - we all learnt a little something about our favourite Carlisle Street resident. I hope he did too.
John Safran’s Website
Sunday Night Safran (John’s JJJ radio show with Father Bob)