Why is the ABC so obsessed with advice programs? There’s a reason why the commercial networks don’t make them and it’s not “duhh we forgot”: most Australians consider themselves perfectly capable of living their own lives thank you very much, and when they do need advice they turn to people who have a passing resemblance to either themselves or an expert – neither of whom tends to get a gig hosting these shows on the ABC.
And yet every year the national broadcaster serves up at least one series designed to explain the basic facts of life to an audience that just wants to be entertained. Request denied: the only possibly entertaining angle when guy-with-a-girlfriend Luke McGregor was playing sexless geek Luke McGregor in last year’s Luke Warm Sex was to laugh at his naivety and that would have been to cruel even for the ABC; as for what was supposed to be entertaining in 2015’s utterly shithouse How Not to Behave, let us know when you figure it out.
Which brings us to Growing Up Gracefully, the ABC’s latest attempt to point out that Australians are Doing Life Wrong. Despite the presence of the occasional snappy one-liner or wacky prank (“hey members of the public, blow this whistle when my skirt – which I am lifting via these pulleys – becomes too short!”), this is, once again, not really a comedy program, and so really not our problem. Jeez ABC, can you stop promoting these advice shows as comedies so we can stop watching them and go back to old episodes of Sit Down, Shut Up?
But because we did bother to watch the first episode, we might as well pass judgment because that’s the kind of jerks we are. Good news: as advice shows go, this is closer to The Checkout than Luke Warm Sex, which is no surprise because The Chaser’s Julian Morrow is one of the producers. Of course he is: with Andrew Denton gone, someone has to guide the up-and-comers down the path towards the bland yet polished mediocrity the ABC so highly prizes.
Enough snark for now: The basic premise is decent – two sisters, one exploring old-time advice for women, the other checking out the modern day variety (news flash: they’re not that different!) and as hosts, Hannah & Eliza Reilly (daughters of Hey, Dad..!‘s Garry Reilly and both seasoned media performers) are likable enough without getting in the way of what they’re trying to say. There’s half the battle won right there. Also, hosted by women! That’s a nice change from Luke McGregor and Tom Gleeson.
That said, there’s a fine line between “we’re not taking this too seriously” and “we’re just taking the piss”, and this is often on the wrong side of things. What kind of clothes would you wear to hide your personal issues (like the fact you’re a murderer) is not a hilarious comedy sketch the way it plays out here, and the predictable slide into the traditional ABC awkwardness arrives right on time with the “sexy dress” reveal. Things get a bit more weighty later on with guides to both old-fashioned etiquette and taking bikini selfies, but…
Look, the trick with these shows is to be actually informative while coating the information in just enough comedy (though never enough for us, which is why we generally avoid these shows) to keep things entertaining. In its first episode, Growing Up Gracefully struggles to get the balance right: too often it’s neither informative enough to be useful or funny enough to stand as comedy.
Hopefully they’ll figure this out in later episodes, because what we’ve seen so far has potential. Though that’s mostly potential to be one of those shows where it feels like everything else has been washed out to make sure our focus remains on the hosts. Because that’s what’s important, isn’t it? Each media appearance a stepping stone to the next as part of a nebulous yet driven quest for fame for its own sake. Growing Up Gracefully is never going to be a successful brand – but it just might help launch Hannah & Eliza as brands on their own.
(this is probably why The Checkout has worked where almost every other attempt has failed: because it’s produced by The Chaser – who clearly want to shift their attentions more to the production side of things – using various hired guns as presenters, the show has focused on what viewers care about rather than what the on-air hosts want. Viewers want to be educated and entertained; hosts want to be loved)
Of course, we’ve avoided all mention of whatever we actually need a show about how to find your way through life as a woman in the 21st century because a): it mostly seems to involve making references to “the patriarchy” and b): what is the point of any of these shows anyway?
Semi-practical life advice can be useful and entertaining: The Checkout and two-thirds of A Current Affair each night proves that can work. And shows featuring an entertaining comedian or host exploring a specific, focused topic can also work: countless overseas documentaries and the local work of John Safran and Judith Lucy are all the evidence you need.
But over and over again the ABC picks topics that are simply too diffuse – manners! sex! more manners! – and then brings in hosts who may be likable enough but lack the well-defined point-of-view required to shape the material. The result ends up feeling unpleasantly close to a kind of advertorial for the hosts as media personalities, where they wander around smiling and (dis-)approving mildly of everything they encounter, treating everything as merely a colourful backdrop for their own presence.
Hey, remember Lawrence Leung? Remember how The Chaser fixed him up with that series where he tried to figure out life and stuff by going around asking experts to help him with stuff? Then he made Maximum Choppage and now turns up semi-regularly on Offspring? Come on guys, who can blame hosts for wanting to go down the same path when you can score that kind of result?