The climate crisis is no joke, but sometimes you do have to laugh.
Like when you see one of the largest fossil fuel companies in the world unleash a multimillion-dollar marketing campaign promising green initiatives while still pushing a pro-oil agenda (and spending millions more behind closed doors to fight regulations designed to cut carbon emissions). Or when a government pledges to cut carbon emissions but then approves a bunch of new gas and oil projects. Or who could forget the time BP, the fourth-largest investor-owned oil company in the world, posted that cringeworthy poll on Twitter encouraging people to use BP’s carbon footprint calculator and share how they plan to reduce their carbon emissions. Big LOL.
What’s even funnier is imagining how these decisions get made. Picturing a room full of fossil fuel executives strategising and brainstorming ideas, handing over briefs to PR companies and launching “green” campaigns. Honestly, it’s comedy gold.
Documented by: Lara Vrkic
At RIISE, we’ve actually been spending a lot of time thinking about these scenarios and how they play out. We’ve even been doing some conceptualising of our own, which brings us to an exciting announcement: RIISE is launching its first TV series.
In line with our vision of rebranding sustainability, our first TV series debuts a new genre: climate entertainment. Moving away from the fear and guilt associated with the climate change narrative, the climate entertainment genre instead uses drama, comedy and storytelling to not only hook viewers into binge-worthy series but engage them with the conversation at large.
“We’re doing TV because we believe it can help to solve climate change. We know that shame and terror don’t work. Climate entertainment is a new way to joyfully propel people into action,” RIISE CEO Sara Bell says.
Coming back to greenwashing and the laughable actions of polluting companies, our first series, Big Oil, takes a satirical swing at the fossil fuel industry. It’s partly inspired by Sara’s own experience of legally challenging fossil fuel subsidies in the EU courts and the current impact of the war in Ukraine on global energy prices. And the ways in which fossil fuel industries are trying to tap into the sustainability movement.
Documented By: Lara Vrkic
The series takes place in a corporate office setting, giving viewers an entertaining glimpse into the inner machinations of a global oil company. The working environment has undertones of other office-based comedies like Utopia, The IT Crowd and The Office, but as RIISE’s Head of TV Development Amy McCulloch explains, with a modern and glamorous aesthetic more akin to Succession or Billions.
The initial idea for the series centred around a corporate office’s sustainability division and its mission to make the company greener. But, following the classic office comedy trope, as they tried to implement changes, they would consistently fail. When Amy, a former series producer at Disney who has also worked in the Seven Network newsroom and across post-production at Seven, Fremantle and Endemol Shine, took the pitch to Sara, she knew exactly how to elevate it.
“It was Sara’s idea to make it an oil company in a glamorous office, not an uninspiring, dingy office setting which you see all the time on other shows because that’s part of the comedy,” Amy says. “With an oil company, we’re subverting the genre. We’re showing a no expenses spared, rich corporation with an amazing office. They have the money to make everything look beautiful and make you feel like everything they’re doing is not as evil.”
Documented By: Lara Vrkic
The central concept of the series also subverts climate action: an oil company pushing a sustainability narrative. “We get to poke fun at fossil fuel companies and big oil multinationals and delegitimise them by turning it into satire and showing what they are doing,” Amy explains.
Along with tackling big and very real issues – geopolitics, war and environmental catastrophe – Big Oil entertains through oxymoronic scenarios, like an oil company trying to introduce a no-plastics policy when oil is the very thing that plastic is made from. “Working through the ideas for this series has been really fun because we get to play around with a lot of dark stuff. And even though at its core it’s bad, by executing it through humour and showing the absurdity of the company, it opens people up to think more about what those corporations are actually doing,” Amy says. “Plus it’s relatable, especially in that office setting and with the dynamics between characters and the situations they get themselves into.”
Earlier this month, RIISE filmed two scenes for the show, shot in Sydney’s vibrant CBD against the city’s iconic harbour. “The location really elevates the world of the show,” Amy, who wrote the first scene, says. “Those floor-to-ceiling views of the city with the Harbour Bridge and Opera House in the background immediately convey the power of our fictitious oil company, and it adds a layer to the characters (the Oilshore employees) – you can see how it makes them feel untouchable.”
Documented By: Lara Vrkic
The second scene was written by BAFTA-winning British activist, journalist and satirist Heydon Prowse. As Amy explains, the two scenes work as a funny counterpoint to each other. “In the first scene, the PR team is trying to get ahead of an oil spill and spin it the “right” way. In the second scene – which could be the next day, when the spill is old news – the team is planning outfits for COP28, which they call “Coachella for activists”,” she says. “The spectrum of absurdity between these two scenes is at the heart of what makes this show so fun to create. It’s like, what diabolical things could these people and this company be getting up to next?”
Known for his satirical work, Heydon is no stranger to leaning into the absurd and darker sides of comedy to get to the heart of an issue. “Satire has always been a tool that has the power to propel the people into action. It’s so important that we don’t lose our sense of humour even as the global ecological crisis becomes more and more serious,” Heydon says. “Big Oil riffs on the office comedy genre, but has a much deeper message at its core. I was given creative freedom in coming up with these scenes, which reference workplace culture tropes while lifting a lid on the industry’s apathy and inaction towards climate change.”
LA-based Australian actress Nathalie Kelley, known for her roles in Dynasty and The Baker and the Beauty, has signed on to star in the series, heading one of Big Oil’s leading characters, PR manager Annika. Nathalie played Cristal Flores, a PR manager with a strong moral compass in Dynasty. The role with Big Oil will see her reprise the steeliness she brought to Cristal, but with a much murkier sense of morality.
Documented By: Lara Vrkic
“Annika is almost like the Oilshore mascot,” Nathalie says. “She’s super polished and has a silver tongue, can charm anyone and persuade the press. But deep down she’s a snake oil saleswoman. Her job is to market and sell this company and improve its image and she will do whatever it takes. Which involves doing some pretty terrible things.”
For Nathalie, the role appeared at an opportune moment in her career. “After the success of The Baker and the Beauty, I wanted to turn my attention to the stories that humanity really needs right now,” she explains. “For me, that’s stories that centre on climate change and climate justice. To find a team willing to put humour and satire so cleverly to use to tackle those issues and tell these stories has been a dream. I’m very excited to be working on this project.”
The vision for the show extends beyond the subject matter itself. Big Oil’s entire wardrobe will be a combination of sustainable clothing sold on RIISE and vintage fashion pieces. “We see a huge opportunity to celebrate beautiful, sustainably made clothing throughout this series and all future RIISE TV productions,” Sara says. “We’re showing sustainable style in an elevated and exciting way, which further supports our climate entertainment mission.”
In addition to Big Oil, RIISE has several other series in the works, including Deception, a glamorous legal drama set in Sydney showcasing the city as a character, much like Emily in Paris does with the famous French city. Working with Sara and Amy on Deception is Australian film director and screenwriter Peter Duncan. Peter is the co-creator of Australian comedy-drama series Rake, for which he won the AACTA award for Best Direction in a Television Drama or Comedy in 2016. This project will be a co-production with Hoodlum Entertainment, an Emmy and BAFTA award-winning production company who have previously worked on shows such as Netflix’s A Perfect Pairing and upcoming drama Land of Bad, starring Russell Crowe and Liam Hemsworth.