I look forward to Wednesday night on the ABC – in fact, it’s the only night I plan on watching actual broadcast content. The Young Inventors, Spicks and Specks, The IT Crowd and The Armstrong and Miller Show are all great fun, and given the premise of going backstage with advertising experts, The Gruen Transfer seemed like a promising addition to the line-up.
In hindsight, Will Anderson should have set alarm bells ringing. As much as I loved The Glass House, Dave Hughes and a series of witty guests carried that show, because Young Master Billy, as his abysmal performance at this year’s Melbourne Comedy Festival made apparent, is ratshit without an autocue and some interesting sidekicks.
Which leads us to the advertising representatives who, it seems, will make up the weekly panel. It’s worth noting the apparent effort at diversity in their ranks: Dee, the sole woman, comes off as creative-by-nature, cynical-by-necessity, and easily the most intelligent and well-adjusted participant. Granted, however, this is not tricky when compared to her fellow marketeers. Russell has the self-contradicting, overly-enthusiastic sheen of a man suddenly forced to rationalise ethical issues he hasn’t actually thought about. Todd appeared genuinely interested in the psychology and studies behind why advertising works, but took a credibility hit from being paired with Dan, the vile, sleazy epitome of corporate selling, whose cringeworthy humour left the audience wincing and Will Anderson with a glazed, almost manic desperation to change topic.
The humour of The Gruen Transfer was hard to pinpoint: watching advertising high-flyers hold forth on how to market beer (or, at one point, whale meat) held an awful fascination, because none of the panel seemed to realise that their willingness to do so, rather than any jokes they might make, was what people had shown up to laugh at. Anderson himself was uncertain of which side to take, alternately egging on the advertisers and asking sharp questions of them. But this only achieved awkwardness: laughing with the panel alienated the audience, while laughing at them provoked unease. Having tuned in to watch marketing practices exposed as immoral wank and their practitioners called scum, I maintain the latter tactic is the most viable means of success, but it’s undoubtably difficult to make four professionals show up for a weekly ridiculing of their chosen industry.
Ultimately, The Gruen Transfer seems like an insupportable concept. As long as it remains unable to strike a working balance between self-pity, mockery and flagellation, it will act as a discomforting metaphor for society’s relationship with advertising: hate-love, with lashings of smug immorality, ignorance and guilt.