After a string of exits, The Project has become a bland affair

The Project has always walked a tightrope. A serious current affairs show, covering important stories with professional journalistic integrity, while simultaneously a platform for celebrity junket interviews and plugs, plus a jokey pal-around between jolly friends behind a desk: it’s a tricky mix to pull off. But the show has survived and thrived, and enormous credit to producers, writers and on-air talent for keeping the high-wire act going for so long.

But this year there have been some big changes at The Project, and it’s worth taking a closer look at how the show is travelling, and how well it’s weathering a series of major departures. In recent months the Channel 10 program has lost Peter Helliar, Carrie Bickmore and Lisa Wilkinson, three of the show’s biggest names across its 14-year history.

The Project’s current regular line-up includes (clockwise from left) Sam Taunton, Michael Hing, Hamish Macdonald, Georgie Tunny, Waleed Aly and Sarah Harris.

In Helliar, the show has lost its long-term comic engine: the jolly jester who kept things light in a reassuring way. In Wilkinson they have lost a high-profile face who brought to the table serious, high-powered journalism. And Bickmore is probably the biggest loss of all: a bona fide star who has been with the show since the beginning and represents the classic Australian showbiz personality. Bickmore is a Gold Logie winner, and exactly the kind of performer that the Logies were invented for: the friendly face who is capable of winning hearts and making multitudes wish to spend an hour an evening with her.

Who’s left? Waleed Aly – another Gold Logie owner – remains The Project’s father figure, and his credentials as a serious thinker and commentator on politics and culture are impeccable. At least for the segments of the show dedicated to “serious” stories, he’s a major asset, and undoubtedly The Project’s one true remaining star: still able to deliver the kind of monologue that used to go viral and generate passionate responses from fans and haters alike.

What else is there? The regular Project lineup, sans Bickmore, Helliar and Wilkinson, has a more anonymous look about it than Ten would prefer. Newly installed weekday co-presenter Sarah Harris, Georgie Tunny and Hamish McDonald may be admirable professionals and charming humans, but they are not “stars” the way their predecessors were (Rachel Corbett is on maternity leave). At this stage, it’s difficult to imagine people tuning in just to see the new crop the way they did for the old guard. Maybe in time they’ll become embedded in the public’s mind Bickmore-style, but the question is whether The Project has the luxury of time.

Waleed Aly (left) with Carrie Bickmore and Pete Helliar, both of whom left The Project at the end of 2022.Credit:Network Ten

Although The Project began as a kind of experiment in fusing light entertainment with hard news – an experiment that the show’s title still bears witness to – its longevity is really down to a kind of old-school cosiness. There’s a colourless edge now to a show that always got by on personality and having the faces that people know and love. It’s an inoffensive dinner party you can invite yourself to each evening, should you like the company on offer. But there’s inoffensive and then there’s bland; how much of the familiar crowd can the show lose before the company becomes unappealing?

Worse, the more the star power diminishes, the more the format is starting to show the strain. Comedians Sam Taunton and Michael Hing are now the regular comedians, filling the spot that Helliar, and before him names like Dave Hughes and Charlie Pickering, used to. The changes have not done any favours to The Project’s already-creaky comic interludes: devoting entire segments to underwritten “funny” segments that rub with awkward friction up against the “proper” bits about Burning Social Issues; and host banter that speaks badly either of their improvisational skills or their acting talent.

A recent segment on Valentine’s Day was a shining example. Gags about hearts and flowers, a weirdly off-putting skit about Taunton going on a date with guest host Kate Langbroek, and some post-segment back-and-forth about girlfriends added up to a double whammy: precious few laughs plus the jarring effect of everyone playing comedian just a few minutes after they were putting on their concerned faces for a story about the teen vaping crisis. For the viewer at home the laughter from the studio at every joke can sound like panicked desperation. Audience laughter can be infectious, but not if they’re trying too hard to fake it.

The Project aims to strike a balance between comedy and journalism, but it comes across as a show that can’t decide whether it’s A Current Affair, Sunrise or The Weekly.

Of course, The Project hasn’t really changed all that much. It was always a fairly conventional show, built around interviews, celebrity plugs and latching on to whatever was in the news on the day. But having big names and big charisma fronting the exercise could cover up the fact that the show was never as innovative or amusing as it congratulated itself on being. In 2023, though, the predictability and shallowness of the whole concept is becoming more difficult to escape.

Can The Project survive? It would be foolish to make any definite predictions. Nobody would’ve expected it to last this long. Even on Australian television, is there a point at which a show becomes impossible to care about?

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