Oh, The Pain.

The Agony series is back with The Agony Guide to Modern Manners, and… yeah. Unlike some of the ABC’s long-running series where the end product is an insult on enough levels to make it worth our while to re-examine it every time it airs, the Agony shows are the same thing over and over and over. What more is there to say?

Of course, from a programming standpoint the shows are genius. Creator / host / cameraman Adam Zwar goes around to the homes of a bunch of b-list media personalities – many of whom are his peers or his wife, though over the course of the twenty odd episodes that have already aired he’s been casting his net increasingly wider, to the show’s benefit – and asks them a bunch of questions about living life. They answer, their answers are edited into bite-sized chunks, some “quirky” archival footage and Zwar voice-over is added to hold it all together and hey presto! Prime time viewing.

We all know that money is tight at the ABC and a series like this – Zwar and his wife are basically the entire production team and the guests are presumably paid a pittance – must be a godsend for the bean counters. It provides Australian content for cheap, gives local comedians and personalities valuable exposure (it basically kick-started Lawrence Mooney’s current ABC career), and rates well enough that bringing it back year after year doesn’t just seem like penny-pinching.

On the other side of the ledger, it’s somewhat pointless, rarely funny and borderline condescending. At least with Grumpy Old Men – you know, the show basically identical to this one only it came out a few years earlier – you had the angle that the old men were representing a world gone by; they’d seen society change around them and they weren’t happy about it. The majority of the cast of the Agony series are just your average prime-of-life media types who are telling the rest of us about the ways of the world because… they’re friends of the host?

But what about the tough questions being asked? Questions like: “How should you behave on your first day on the job?” Hey, aren’t most of these people self-employed or freelancers?  Then there’s “How should you behave in the office lift?” “What should you wear to work?” “What are the dos and don’ts of the office phone?” … And this is on television because why now? Wait, John Elliot just asked how to find Miranda Kerr topless on the internet. And no-one told him how. Come on, that would have been useful information.

The one moderately interesting thing about the Agony series as it’s developed is that it’s moved away a little from its original format, where – in Agony Uncles at least – it was a bunch of somewhat smug, generally good-looking, reasonably well-off blokes handing out relationship advice. As we pointed out way back then, these guys generally came off as dickheads to be pitied and laughed at, and their advice seemed largely torn from the pages of some 60s guide to being a knob. Which perhaps wasn’t all that big a surprise: Zwar spent a while as a successful weekend “man’s issues” columnist, and that’s an area where re-enforcing stereotypes (women like men with cash; men like to be the ones chasing women) rather than dramatically challenging them is the way to go.

But over the course of the series the advice being handed out has somehow become even more vague and general, to the point now that what we’re being served up in some segments is the shock revelation that some slightly famous people are gossips and snoops. The advice angle has been downplayed and rightly so, as generally speaking the cast are largely unqualified to advise anyone on anything past “how to get on television” (which is one more thing than we could advise people on, but we’re not the ones on television). Meanwhile the celebrity culture “tell us what you’re wearing” side of things has been dialled up until what’s left is a thin stew of mild anecdotes and celebrity polling (which celebrities like a bit of cleavage at work? which celebrities like to gossip?).

Oh, we’ve also had our attention drawn to this:

“There are certain websites that have had a lot to say about me over the years,” Zwar admits.

“My friend Shane Jacobson doesn’t read anything whereas I read whatever I come across, I don’t search for it, but I am slowly becoming tougher. I just don’t care anymore. It has to be pretty nasty for me to care, and that is not (me) encouraging Australians to write nasty things about me!

“It’s terrible when it comes from someone in the industry. That’s when it hurts. It doesn’t matter if it comes from a critic, that’s their job, and if it was from someone anonymous –then whatever. If they can’t be bothered putting their name to their comment then how much investment can they possibly have?

Hmm. Let’s get this straight. If you’re a nothing-to-hide member of the public – well, Zwar doesn’t even mention what he thinks of your opinion. If you’re a critic, he doesn’t care. Nameless and therefore un-invested chumps like us? Forget it. It’s only those in the industry – those who know all the hard work and effort that goes into making a program firsthand – that he’s listening to.

Oh wait – no he’s not:

“But if it comes from a colleague then that is always seen in the industry as over-stepping the mark.

“That’s a no-no.”

So if you’re not in the industry he doesn’t care what you say, and if you are in the industry you shouldn’t be saying negative things*.

We’re guessing emptying the suggestion box isn’t a full time job at ZwarCorp.




*This would come as a large surprise to 95% of the industry people we’ve met.

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  • Big Shane says:

    Did you see this on SMH from 30 April?

    “Kalowski says Big Bang’s success proves there is still some life in the “multi-camera” sitcom format, and confesses he is currently developing two comedies that will be filmed in front of audiences. This is the style that Chuck Lorre describes as “more like a small play than a small movie”.

    “I’d like to believe Australian audiences would – far from rejecting a local multi-camera sitcom – be particularly tickled by a quality, home-grown one,” Kalowski says.

    ”My attitude to comedy development is ‘idea first, and let form follow content’. These multi-camera shows are being developed that way because it’s what’s best for those shows. Without giving too much away, one project is in development with a team of writers led by Marieke Hardy, who is the show’s creator/producer. That show is a very contemporary workplace satire.”

    Looks like more ABC lameness from the same old faces…

  • Urinal Cake says:

    Zwar and Hardy are some of the reasons why I sometimes think a Coalition clean out of the ABC wouldn’t be such a bad thing.

  • 13 schoolyards says:

    Eh, there’s always going to be some top-down driven shows at the ABC – it’s too much to expect Kalowski to keep his mitts out of it. We still remember that Zwar said his big influences for Lowdown were 30 Rock and The Larry Sanders Show, so these guys have a very different idea of what a ‘quality, home-grown” local sitcom would be like to the people expected to watch it.

  • BIlly C says:

    Kalowski has no concept of who the ABC audience is. Wednesday Night Fever was a critical and ratings flop. A broad multi-camera sitcom? When was the last time that worked in this country? ABC audiences want smart comedy or comedy that pretends it’s smart.

    You might as well pencil in Wednesday night shows at 350 -450 for the rest of the year. Particularly once Mad As Hell is done. Heck people are turning off Spicks and Specks and turning back on for Agony whatever. Absolute disaster.

  • Big Shane says:

    The problem is that “comedy that pretends it’s smart” is crap like Please Like Me or Laid.

    What do ABC audiences want? Funny or smart? Why can’t they have both? Why is it that multi-cam comedy is considered dumb? Why wouldn’t an ABC audience welcome a return of something like Mother And Son?

  • 13 schoolyards says:

    Because Mother & Son – and every single other decent sitcom this country has ever produced – has been writer driven, while today’s ABC is happy to run The Elegant Gentleman’s Guide To Knife Fighting, a show that crowd-sourced its sketch concepts then had the cast re-writing the scripts on-set.

    The disregard for writers in Australian television is so massive (unless you’re Marieke Hardy) that even comedy chiefs will literally talk about anything else as if it has the slightest impact on whether a show is any good.