Agency is a seven-part web series about a small creative marketing agency in Wellington and the misadventures of its three hapless staff members.
The creators of Agency, having come from an advertising background themselves, bring an authenticity to the series that is inherently funny. A lot of people’s knowledge of the inner workings of the advertising industry comes from Mad Men, a show set fifty years in the past. Mad Men takes place in a hedonistic culture of womanising, whiskey drinking, and chain smoking. And while Agency does not take place in the 1960s, it is set in a world and a culture that most young professionals in Wellington will be familiar with.
I’ve heard many stories of job interviews in the branding and marketing industries that aren’t so much job interviews as they are ‘Friday night drinks with the lads to see how well you fit into the team in a social setting.’ And Agency is very true to this world. While the ‘face’ of advertising may have changed over the past fifty years, the ‘culture’ is still the same. Now it’s run by hipster-fratboy-Don-Draper-wannabes who drink craft beer instead of whiskey. And this revelation is the most interesting thing about the series and the place where its most universal comedic potential lies.
And having a lot of potential is the biggest compliment I can give the series. Through simply hearing what it’s about, I was immediately drawn to watch it. Yet, having now watched all of series one, I don’t believe the series has found its comedic legs yet.
The three main characters all have distinct personalities that should be able to generate stories. Summer (Samantha Reed) is the airy-fairy creative type. Tom (Benjamin Forman) is the obnoxiously earnest head of the company. And Duncan (co-writer Glen Puklowski) is the awkward straight man who reacts to the other two’s more absurd personalities. At least that’s how it starts out. Each ten-minute episode focuses on one event or ‘sketch,’ and the personalities of the three leads change drastically depending on the plot requirements of each sketch.
In one sketch, Duncan is yelling at Summer for screwing up a film shoot with her airy-fairy creative ways, and in the next, he’s being her demure assistant while she’s being a hardnosed, authoritative Devil Wears Prada style boss.
While this inconsistency in characterisation wouldn’t be a problem in a more sketch-based series like Portlandia where Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein are playing different characters in every sketch, it makes it harder to invest in the exploits of the characters in this series.
And it makes moments like the drunken camaraderie between the three leads in the series-ending Christmas party feel unearned.
Because the main characters are so heightened already, the clients they interact with have to be even more heightened, often to cartoonish levels, like the tobacco man in The Tobacco Man or the titular Man of 1000 Coffees.
Agency also doesn’t seem to know whether it wants us to root for or against its characters. The characters will often act like horrible people in a similar way to the characters on Peep Show or It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.
But unlike those two shows, Agency doesn’t always seem to be aware of how horrible its characters are.
The episode Amazing Races, which is about putting together a ‘we are the world’ style campaign video with various ethnic groups, has a very clever punch line to end the episode on. But the path the episode takes to get us there borders on enforcing tokenism and making fun of diversity and is quite uncomfortable to watch – especially because all the characters involved are entitled white people. There’s a fine line between satirising an issue in a constructive way and actually enforcing that issue and Amazing Races, definitely toes that line.
The episode features a client who’s demanding they cast every single ethnicity in the campaign video (“what’s that one that went up the mountain with Edmund Hillary? Sort of a mix between Asian and Indian… oh, and proper Indian too”) and have subtitles for the hearing impaired while translating the video into multiple different languages (including braille). The emphasis of the scene isn’t on how offensive the client is being, but rather on how outrageous her demands are in sort of a political-correctness-gone-mad sort of way (while also being racist).
And while I admire Agency for aspiring to be subversive, this sequence ended up being more offensive than it was funny.
It’s moments like these that are indicative of how Agency has yet to find its footing as a series. While its concept has a lot of promise, the edgy and subversive comedy it aspires to hasn’t been completely nailed yet.
The series’ production values are very impressive, particularly Matt Henley’s cinematography and Joel Anscombe-Smith’s sound design. Both are some of the best I’ve seen in a web series, local or otherwise. The aerial shots of Wellington and location shooting in some of the city’s most iconic bars and cafes also go a long way towards making Wellington a vital character in the series.
While the human characters in the series still have a long way to go, I do feel Agency is worth a watch. Comedy, particularly satirical comedy, is one of the hardest genres to get right and I applaud what this series aims to do. Many great comedies don’t find their voice until their second series (see Parks and Recreation and the US version of The Office…). And Agency is already a uniquely kiwi, and distinctly Wellington series. And for these reasons alone Agency is worth keeping an eye on. I do feel with some tweaks it could join the greats like Flat3.
Watch Agency: http://webserieschannel.co.nz/webseries/agency/
Overall rating: 3.5 stars
Story: 3 stars
Characters: 2 stars
Production Value: 5 stars