Graeme Blun­dell wel­comes a new Gruen

The three Gruen- teers make a welcome re­turn to the small screen to ex­am­ine the world of advertising

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents - Graeme Blun­dell

Hap­pily for more than a mil­lion of us, the Rose d’Or-win­ning Gruen re­turns for a 12th in­car­na­tion in its sev­enth year, with another slight name change, promis­ing to again be the show that analy­ses what most other pro­grams are there to sell: advertising it­self. And again its panel will run their amused and of­ten per­plexed eyes over spin, brand­ing, po­si­tion­ing and im­age con­trol, wher­ever they are found.

Co­me­dian Wil An­der­son con­tin­ues as host, and Aus­tralia’s favourite advertising ex­ecs — lo­qua­cious Todd Samp­son and even more talk­a­tive Rus­sel Howcroft — also re­turn. How they found the time is any­one’s guess. Samp­son has been putting his well-known brain­i­ness to the test un­der­go­ing a rad­i­cal mind makeover in a now six-part doc­u­men­tary se­ries in­ves­ti­gat­ing the new science of brain plas­tic­ity, even putting his life on the line. Howcroft, once the chief ex­ec­u­tive of the Aus­tralia and New Zealand arm of global agency Young & Ru­bi­cam Brands, did the same thing sim­ply by join­ing the then be­lea­guered Net­work Ten a cou­ple of years ago — it seemed like pro­fes­sional sui­cide. But as ex­ec­u­tive gen­eral man­ager, he’s man­aged to turn it around too, al­beit with shows of un­par­al­leled banal­ity. Mar­ket­ing ge­nius, in­deed.

When The Gruen Trans­fer ar­rived it was hard to know what to ex­pect. But as it turned out, pro­duced by that TV ge­nius An­drew Denton, a se­ries about the dis­cur­sive and emo­tive power of TV advertising was a great idea.

Denton’s trick was to get in­side the com­plex­i­ties and triv­i­al­i­ties of that men­da­cious in­dus­try us­ing hu­mour and a kind of foren­sic irony: sec­ond na­ture to his panel.

We may have had cheap clip show com­pi­la­tions of the fun­ni­est, dag­gi­est and sex­i­est ad­ver­tise­ments — a long-term sta­ple of free-to-air vacu­ity — but no pro­gram has used hu­mour to dis­man­tle the thought pro­cesses of an in­dus­try that rep­re­sents the sen­si­bil­ity of Aus­tralia’s chang­ing con­sumers. The show gets us analysing the de­vices, the pre­sen­ta­tional tricks, the cross-cul­tural ref­er­ences or the clever re­cy­cling of ear­lier vis­ual styles in com­mer­cial pro­duc­tion. Mostly we just en­joy Samp­son and Howcroft tak­ing pot shots at each other and the cut­ting wit of An­der­son, with his pro­found un­der­stand­ing of the in­creas­ingly busy au­dio­vi­sual space in which we live.

Iron­i­cally, its re­turn is es­pe­cially welcome at a time when more and more of us are find­ing ways of avoid­ing TV advertising. For good rea­son. “See­ing a mur­der on tele­vi­sion can help work off one’s an­tag­o­nisms,” Al­fred Hitch­cock once fa­mously said. “And if you haven’t any an­tag­o­nisms, the com­mer­cials will give you some.” De­spite the new dis­rup­tive tech­nol­ogy, they now come at us at an alarm­ing rate, seem­ingly with­out reg­u­la­tion, swelled with ad­di­tional self-advertising and up­com­ing se­ries pro­mo­tions — these days pro­gram­ming is only there to fill time be­tween ad breaks. Our lounge rooms are like duty-free shops.

Then there are the lo­gos, idents, em­blems, trade­marks, pro­mo­tions and do­main names all over ev­ery pro­gram. The Guardian’s critic Mark Law­son calls it “huck­ster­ing punc­tu­a­tion”, these days more than ever af­fect­ing the shap­ing and pac­ing of pro­grams them­selves. “Mid­somer Mur­ders, for ex­am­ple, is of­ten mocked for a mur­der rate in­creas­ingly im­plau­si­ble for its ru­ral set­ting, but the cre­ators have de­cided that the end-of-seg­ment cliffhanger most likely to make an au­di­ence stay with the show is another slay­ing.”

There was a time when we quite liked com­mer­cials, es­pe­cially when they were de­liv­ered live. Then there was a golden age of ads cre­ated by some of our more in­no­va­tive film di­rec­tors and cin­e­matog­ra­phers. But these days, in­tru­sive, an­noy­ing and un­wanted, most of it is third­class con­tent forced down our throats. As Mar­shall McLuhan sug­gested, advertising re­mains dev­as­tat­ingly ef­fec­tive in mak­ing you sick, then selling you the cure. Over to the panel, please. I urge you all to take a look at Mr Ro­bot from writer and cre­ator Sam Es­mail, which cel­e­brates the world of the vig­i­lante hacker. Its first episode is one of the great­est pilots in re­cent times, with a won­der­ful or­ches­tra­tion of spe­cial ef­fects, stunt work and fluid cam­era skills, a mes­meris­ing piece of film­mak­ing echo­ing Scors­ese and Fincher. There have been many TV shows and movies about hack­ing (you can for­get Ten’s cliched and dull CSI: Cy­ber) but there’s been noth­ing quite like this se­ries.

It stars Chris­tian Slater in the ti­tle role of an anti-cor­po­rate anar­chist leader who seeks to re­cruit young El­liot Alder­son (Rami Malek), a so­cially awk­ward drug-ad­dicted cy­ber­se­cu­rity engi­neer (hack­ing be­ing his only way of com­mu­ni­cat­ing with oth­ers) to his band of vig­i­lante hack­ers known as F So­ci­ety. As we like to say in TV, it’s a ripped-from-the-head­lines con­ceit, given more im­me­di­acy by the re­cent vi­o­la­tion of the in­fi­delity web­site Ash­ley Madi­son.

The anony­mous moral cru­saders cer­tainly re­sem­ble our bot­tled-up hero, who also, in what he sees as the greater good, treats pri­vacy with con­tempt. In the pi­lot he takes down sev­eral rather morally dis­rep­utable types, un­able to con­ceal his anger and con­tempt when he con­fronts them and in­forms them that he is ru­in­ing their lives. And in another nar­ra­tive twist, he also proves that cor­po­rate un­der­tak­ings around pri­vacy and se­cu­rity are lit­tle more than hol­low prom­ises. (Ash­ley Madi­son’s for­mer chief ex­ec­u­tive Noel Bi­der­man bears a strik­ing re­sem­blance to one of the guys El­liot brings down, another cor­po­rate heavy obliv­i­ous to the con­se­quences of hubris and, in his case, sex­ism and straight-out blokey ar­ro­gance.) It’s taken a while but arts pro­gram­ming is mak­ing a be­lated re­turn to Aunty and it’s been worth the wait. A spe­cially com­mis­sioned one­hour se­ries pre­mieres this week, pro­duced by six film­mak­ing teams span­ning an eclec­tic range of sub­jects cu­rated un­der the Artsville ban­ner. Among the films are Stranded, the un­likely birth of the Aus­tralian punk mu­sic scene in Joh-Bjelke Petersen’s Bris­bane, and The Diplo­mat, the Artist and the Suit, a look back at the work of the award-win­ning Aus­tralian ar­chi­tects Denton Corker Mar­shall, the de­sign­ers of the new Aus­tralian Venice Bi­en­nale Pav­il­ion.

It’s a ter­rific line-up but the first film — from the ac­com­plished Es­sen­tial Media, and di­rected with ex­quis­ite el­e­gance by Emmy-nom­i­nated Sally Aitken ( The Great Aus­tralian Race Riot) — is a corker. It’s nar­rated in wit­tily dis­dain­ful style by the great ac­tress Kris McQuade as Ait- ken and her crew fol­low the cre­ative process of Frank Gehry, ar­guably the world’s great­est liv­ing ar­chi­tect, as he cre­ates his first build­ing in Aus­tralia: the Univer­sity of Tech­nol­ogy Syd­ney’s new busi­ness school.

While it’s now claimed to be an ar­chi­tec­tural icon, the build­ing in Syd­ney’s un­fash­ion­able south­ern end has many de­trac­tors, in a town that loves to eat artists.

The pro­fes­sion­ally cranky Mike Carl­ton, first in a cho­rus of naysay­ers, says of the crushed­look­ing build­ing at the start of the film: “It’s vul­gar; it’s showy; it screams out for at­ten­tion like a child throw­ing a tantrum in a su­per­mar­ket.” He con­tin­ues: “It’s like a pile of old card­board beer car­tons left out in the rain for the rub­bish man to col­lect.”

A per­plexed engi­neer says of Gehry at the start of con­struc­tion: “It’s just not go­ing to be able to be done; he’s been bending the ruler too much.”

It’s all very amus­ing; as it turns out, so is Gehry him­self, play­ful, pol­ished and se­ri­ously cool. As he says of the carpers, “Any­thing that’s dif­fer­ent to the way they did it be­fore is al­ways chal­leng­ing.”

He’s rather droll about what passes for Syd­ney style, too. “It’s a city not too good with new stuff, much of its build­ing is not ar­chi­tec­ture; with great pain they gave us the Opera House.” To show us the real thing, Aitken and her small crew travel the globe “to cap­ture the phys­i­cal ex­pe­ri­ence of be­ing ad­ja­cent to a whim­si­cal, bold or sim­ply jaw-drop­ping Gehry work”.

She sub­tly in­ter­cuts the story of the build with a witty and rather poetic bi­og­ra­phy of its maker, a res­o­nant story of strug­gling out­sider to beloved “it” artist. And she re­veals the sin­gu­lar way in which Gehry’s rise to fame co­a­lesces with a ris­ing pop celebrity cul­ture in the lat­ter half of the 20th cen­tury.

Artsville: Get­ting Frank Gehry, Tues­day, ABC, 9.30pm Gruen S7, Wed­nes­day, ABC, 8.30pm Mr Ro­bot, Presto, stream­ing

Todd Samp­son, left, Wil An­der­son and Rus­sel Howcroft in Gruen S7, left; Rami Malek in Mr Ro­bot, top; and ar­chi­tect Frank Gehry, above

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