Pacific Heat: Rob Sitch on Turning the Serious Business of Cop Dramas Silly

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Pacific Heat comes to Netflix today. It's a 13 episode series from Working Dog Productions, of which Rob Sitch is one of the founding members, along with Santo Cilauro and Tom Gleisner. 

He also voices one of the leads of Pacific Heat, Agent Todd Sommerville, as well as many of the villains of the series. Pacific Heat is an Australian production, built upon characters that have been around for about 20 years. That's important to know because of the inevitable comparison to a US animated series we know and love.

Sitch took the time to explain a bit about Working Dog, how the characters have come to light, a bit about the humor that inspired them and the animation, as well as what you can expect from the series during a recent telephone interview, in which he didn't mind me taking the silly route, greeting him as Agent Todd Somerville. 

Pacific Heatq

TV Fanatic: I'm sorry, I couldn't help myself. I really enjoyed the two episodes of Pacific Heat I saw and wanted to get into the spirit of things!

Rob Sitch: [laughs] As soon as you say that my voice goes very flat. Someone actually asked me about that the other day, what it is about the voice and I said he takes any sense of humor out of his voice, he doesn't use any punctuation, and you're not sure if he's actually breathing as he speaks.

And I think once you get into [Pacific Heat], the 13, I sort of think they get a little bit sillier as you go along. We kept them on the rails early and then they get a bit sillier as people get used to the whole idea of it. The villains get a whole lot crazier and the plots get a little bit out there, but it's always got that heart. It's that gang of special cops/agents who've got a back story that doesn't quite add up.

People in the US aren't familiar with Working Dog Productions, but you guys are huge in Australia. Can you tell us about it?

We've been around for a while. We came out of university comedy. I was doing medicine, and my colleagues were doing law, and I think we kind of all graduated and realized maybe our heart wasn't in it.

But we sort of got lucky and got a TV series early in our lives, and then we discovered we liked inventing things. We made films, and this started as a radio play that we did for hundreds of episodes, TV, books. One of our guys came up with the idea to create a travel guide to a country that doesn't exist, so we wrote an entire book about a country that doesn't exist.

It got republished in about 20 languages around the world. It's called "Molvania." We made up hotels, language, transport, a political system, currency. People translated it into German and Spanish and Swedish and became sort of a hit book that went around the world.

And what was the title again?

"Molvania: A Land Untouched by Modern Dentistry." So it's an Eastern European country. We just added one. We searched for a place on the map where you wouldn't notice if you added a country, and then added one. And then wrote a 300-page book, like a travel guide, like a traditional travel guide, but everything in it is fake.

That's awesome!

Yeah. that's silly. [laughs] We were going to do it as a prank, and then we thought, it's a lot of effort, so... You know, it's a bit like Pacific Heat. We played with this for so many years, half for our own amusement, and then years ago we thought, geez, we'd love to do this as an animation. And then we experimented with it. So it's been a long road, but it took us a while to find an animator that would match our writing, and once we did that, we were away.

Pacific Heat No Pants

How you came up with the idea was my second question, so I'm glad you already covered it. Already, people online are comparing it to Archer. How do you feel about that? Is it a fair comparison?

People seem to love Archer. I haven't seen much of it, so I'll take it as a compliment. But we did the radio play 20 years ago, so the characters and the ideas go back a long way with us and our animation style, it makes me sound old, but we started working on it 15 years ago. So just about anything in the show would predate a lot of shows that are out at the moment, but people just haven't seen us.

As you were saying earlier, the dialogue is just so silly. I was thinking of it last night, and it reminds me of slapstick, but with dialogue. Verbal slapstick.

Yeah, yeah, it's constant. I'll tell you something we love, one of the elements. We love flashbacks. They're treated so seriously in crime dramas, and no one ever questions them.

So one of the fun things that we have is to imagine the other characters are standing around watching the flashback with the person who is having the flashback, questioning the logic, how it could have possibly happened. [laughs] You know, in a cop drama, during a flashback, you're allowed your own time and space and no one ever questions it, so it's funny turning that on its head.

I loved when one character said, "Well why did you let me go into my whole flashback?" because everyone had already figured out it was irrelevant.

Yeah. And how could you have watched my flashback when it was in my head? All of that reverential stuff. The thing we love is that all these cops in unconventional units always have way too much back story. Like hang on, you were a Navy SEAL, then you were a cop for ten years, then you went off to Tibet to meditate for another decade and you're only 23. It just doesn't add up.

Pacific Heat The Chief

How did you decide which one of you would be which character?

Like I said, we've done a bunch of these voices, roughly, for over 20 years. So the guy who plays the Chief has had that voice since he was about 19. He just lowers his voice and takes out all inflection. When you see him, you realize he looks nothing like the Chief, he's just got this voice he's been doing forever and a day, and he's never aged.

I've always had this flat voice of the guy that takes it oh, way too seriously, and another one of my compatriots plays the big beefcake guy and then we had a couple of friends who could do all the female voices.

We thought we would use a lot of other voices, but I play just about every villain, and we worked out that it's much more fun to hear five people do a hundred voices than it is to have a hundred people in the studio. There's a sort of mischief that comes through the voices.

We recorded it almost like a rock band records a live album. We set up five or six microphones and roll through it with all the voices with five of us in real time and a couple of takes and I think it adds something.

I smiled the whole time I was watching. It's been so long since I watched something that made me laugh out loud like that.

I think that's why it took us so long to find the animation style and then make it fit. The whole style has to make it look like it's taking everything really seriously. There's no wacky animation, because the whole show is supposed to show that it's very serious police business, but what they're saying is constantly undermining it. The slapstick is in the voices, not in the animation.

You're right. It reminds me of Peter Sellers as the Pink Panther. He always took himself very seriously.

You know, I've never thought of that. He always looked like he was a very, very qualified detective, but the glass would fall out of his magnifying glass, and he'd trip or run into the door. I never thought of that before, but I love that series. We realized very early on that in our animation, no one could raise their eyebrows.

That was a lesson we learned. We came up with a set of rules. No wacky elements. Characters cannot raise their eyebrows in mock surprise, and so everybody walks around with these slightly furrowed brows.

Pacific Heat Villains

For some reason, the US doesn't bring in a lot of Australian programming, preferring to remake the series for US Broadcast, but networks like Netflix offer a different opportunity. What's it been like working with them?

You know, I think something's changing in the world, and each generation is getting a little more global. You travel to parts of the world 20 years ago and people barely spoke English, and now the same aged person today is bilingual. And Netflix is part of it.

I think that slow process of remaking something, they've just jumped ten steps and said, 'Let's let the audience decide.' I think it's a pretty exciting time. You know, we thought we'd probably have to re-voice these, but everyone said, let's jumble the stick and put it out there.

I think that would have ruined the charm, to change what is already there.

You know, it's funny, but there is something in the way that comedians do voices you can tell that behind it all, even when they're being dead serious, they're on the verge of laughing. I don't know what it is, but we chose voices on whether or not I could make the others laugh with my voice.

I play a shadowy Chinese villain named Mr. Bung Choi [begins speaking in character] but he crosses his syllables quickly. And he's vain, plays chess and always making strategic moves...

And he said, "Are you putting subtitles on me?"

[Laughs] "You putting subtitles under me??" So it's funny to give villains vanity, you know. He thinks he's speaking English really well. But in some parts of the world, we might just help out by putting subtitles. Villains always get a free run in cop dramas like they're super intelligent, nothing ever goes wrong until the end and they're not vain.

And questioning little tiny things like their grammar and the rules of chess and all those sort of things is fun. So we played with it. Later there's a Southeast Asian General who's gone rogue and uses a cattle prod to torture people, but his batteries go flat and no one has the right size batteries for it. All those types of practicalities that villains in serious shows never have to deal with.

Pacific Heat Cattle Prod

Right, and they're out in the middle of nowhere with everything they need.

Yeah, yeah! And his cattle prod is not charging enough, and it's that sort of silliness. Really, we take what a hundred cop shows do anyway and just throw an error into the program.

Do you have plans for additional seasons?

Oh, I'd love to. If the appetites out there. We've played with this. This is one of the longest things we've ever done, so we have a few more series in our head if people want it.

Here's a look at the trailer, and you can watch the first season of Pacific Heat starting today on Netflix.

Carissa Pavlica is the managing editor and a staff writer and critic for TV Fanatic. She's a member of the Critic's Choice Association, enjoys mentoring writers, cats, and passionately discussing the nuances of television and film. Follow her on Twitter and email her here at TV Fanatic.

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