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Review: 'Short Poppies' on Netflix blooms with whimsical potential

Television review: Rhys Darby's mockumentary 'Short Poppies' takes to Netflix to introduce a gallery of eccentrics.

By Robert Lloyd, Los Angeles Times Television Critic

9:30 AM EDT, April 3, 2014

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Rhys Darby, who played personal manager (and New Zealand deputy cultural attache) Murray Hewitt on HBO's "Flight of the Conchords," has created a series in which to star. "Short Poppies" gets a U.S. premiere Thursday via Netflix, all eight episodes at once, only a couple of days after it bows in its native New Zealand.

The title plays off "tall poppies," a common Commonwealth phrase, borrowed from the Greeks to describe persons of accomplishment or quality whose distinction can also make them targets. The characters here, small-town types thinking big, are of a less accomplished, self-deluded sort; but they manage to endure, to dream, and even to thrive.

Sweet and absurd and a little melancholy, the series features Darby in a different role, male or female, in each episode. In television terms, it is the descendant of series like Steve Coogan's "Coogan's Run," "The Tracey Ullman Show" (and sequels) and closer to home, the work of Chris Lilley, especially "We Can Be Heroes: Finding the Australian of the Year."

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Like "Heroes," "Poppies" is a mockumentary; hosted on camera by actual television journalist David Farrier. (Some questions were Farrier's own; Darby ad-libbed the answers.) He is allowed perhaps a few too many worried looks and dismissive shrugs — he often seems on the verge of packing up and going — but he handles himself well when called on to interact with other characters.

These include Terry, a beach lifeguard, part-time leg model — a sexy-leg competition drives the episode — as well as an amateur promoter of positive thinking. "Don't be like me," he encourages a colleague who wishes for some of his positivity. "Be like you. But not like you now. A new you. A new you that's ... more like me, man."

He's also marketing a legs-only suntan lotion, "a special combination of aloe vera, and what's that sort of milky substance out of coconuts ... and then my secret ingredient's just other brands of suntan lotion."

There is also Louise, a single mother, parking lot attendant and painter ("I'd offer you a seat, but there's too much art"), who has created a sculpture as a town "centerpiece." She "transformed a rejection letter into an acceptance letter and I just sent that back to the council, and that's how I got my commission."

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Darby will also play a park ranger; a UFOlogist, a muscle-car fan; and a whale-watching guide who has seen only one whale.

There is a passing resemblance to "Portlandia" too, with its gallery of aspirational eccentrics seen from the inside — that is, with affection — and its loose, semi-improvised rhythms. And like "Portlandia" it offers good guest stars, including Stephen Merchant as an insurance agent and Sam Neill as a school principal whose hobby is beekeeping, though he only has a single bee, in a jar.

To an American ear there is already something whimsical and winsome about the New Zealand accent; with its rising lilt, it sounds a hopeful note. Nothing here contradicts that.

robert.lloyd@latimes.com

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'Short Poppies'

Where: Netflix

When: Anytime

Rating: Not rated

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