Whether it's front-page news or dinner-party chat, real estate is a topic that New Zealanders, and particularly Aucklanders, never seem to tire of. Kiwis can't get enough of the property game. We love hearing about ridiculous prices, shoddy practices and high jinks such as a disgruntled real estate agent allegedly posting pooh in a box to a former colleague.
Our national obsession with real estate inspired the creation of local show Agent Anna, about a wannabe Auckland real estate broker. Star and executive producer Robyn Malcolm has bought and sold a couple of houses in recent years. She has lived on the North Shore and in West Auckland and is now based in edgy city-fringe Kingsland with her sons Charlie, 10, and Pete, 8. Recently she has been commuting to Melbourne, filming the second series of Upper Middle Bogan for the ABC. Despite the show's name, Malcolm is not rehashing Cheryl West in Outrageous Fortune. She plays Julie Wheeler, a drag racer.
Upper Middle Bogan screens on TV One later this year but, ahead of that, New Zealanders can look forward to seeing Malcolm on the small screen when the second series of Agent Anna debuts on TV One early next month. The first series was her pet project and she plays the titular role of Anna Kingston.
Malcolm was out of the country when the Herald on Sunday broke the pooh-in-a-box accusation, so she hadn't heard about the incident. It's an extreme example of what can go wrong, but Malcolm understands how such a thing could happen.
"People are slapstick and crazy, that's the lovely thing about real estate - it's a microcosm of society and a wonderful landscape of humanity to play in, especially with the presence of addictive relationships, deals and money. Despite the fact we've chosen to set this series in real estate, it's really about people and money."
The machinations of the real estate market affect a lot of people. "Most people have bought and sold. I know a couple of agents and you hear stories. New Zealanders are obsessed with real estate; it's a fantastic collection of characters and a great world to explore. Everyone's got a story. Someone has been done over by somebody else or someone has had something bizarre happen at an open home. There can be a huge amount of heartbreak. It's so weird how in the real estate market you can earn more [from selling your home] than from your job. It's kind of bonkers."
When the first series of Agent Anna screened last year, some real estate companies complained about the way the industry is depicted, but Malcolm says industry insiders she knows say "it's more accurate than not". A few real estate people confided in her, but rather than divulging any secrets about their own workplaces, many said "I know of a company where such-and-such happens". Malcolm is at pains to point out that anecdotes she and the writing team hear about the industry are exaggerated and "massaged" for television.
The tagline for the new series is "a little knowledge is a dangerous thing", following on from the premise of series one, "when all else fails you can always sell real estate".
Viewers will see how Anna fares after having in the final episode of the first series made a scene at a hotel with her former husband, Daniel, and slept with her boss, Clint, played by Roy Billing.
Speaking fondly of Billing and his character, Clint, Malcolm says "in the first season we got to see him orgasm in close up and then [in the first episode of series two] we see him on the dance floor. The man doesn't stop. He's a phenomenally good actor. Clint as a character has come a long way from the beginning to the point now where he is this beautiful, well-rounded character with so much heart.
"You start a character with big, broad brush strokes and the point of storytelling is you get an insight into what drives them. Besides the comedy there's a wonderful sense of humanity behind it. Especially characters in an office - and you can explore that with more time. You can see that with the more time Anna spends with Sandi and Leon, and the relationships develop into an unexpected journey."
The 10-episode series two sees a range of guest actors. Episode one stars Joel Tobeck - "a mad, amazing, comedic, energetic guy whom we gave carte blanche". Further episodes include Jodie Rimmer, Dwayne Cameron, Peter Elliott, Sally Stockwell and Cameron Rhodes. Janice Finn and Ian Mune reappear as Anna's parents, Neil and Jeanette.
When the cast was shooting there would be unscripted comedy improvised on the day. "I love doing it - there's a sense of play working with this really amazing bunch of seasoned professional people - Adam [Gardiner], Roy, Theresa [Healey] and an amazing support cast."
So, do things look up for hapless Anna in the new series? Malcolm says she's not necessarily interested in happy endings. "That's not realistic. There are peaks and troughs in life - things look up and then they go down." Viewers will notice that publicity photos show Anna wearing slightly brighter colours than the drab, neutral tones of series one and her hair appears more groomed. Theresa Healey's "cougar" character Sandi takes Anna in hand for some self-improvement. "It's like a lamb to the slaughter, really," says Malcolm. "The makeover is an external thing which when it happens doesn't quite manage to integrate into Anna's internal world. But if you got rid of all the collapsing stuff you'd lose the character. Anna does get some confidence in some areas. She makes new friends and some old friends come back."
Anna's harried, chaotic life may be like watching a train wreck, but Malcolm says it's important this side of life is portrayed. "We often see heroic, strong women, but women struggle with a whole pile of stuff."
When Malcolm walks around Western Springs lake near her home she sees a number of women of a certain age. "This is not a judgment - they might have rich, full lives, but in their mid-to-late 40s are starting to feel invisible. They're often harried with their jobs, perhaps with money or relationship issues. They might have lots going on in their lives in a huge way, but they don't get noticed - and I am interested in that. I thought about creating a character where you wouldn't turn your head to notice her if she walked past in the street."
"One woman stopped me and did this [placed her palm flat on her chest] and said to me, 'You seem to get the state of internal collapse that women feel. I don't know how you manage to do it.' It's something we all experience at some point. I love that."
Malcolm says Agent Anna is also about how women relate to men. "I think very definitely in the show women are their own worst enemies. Someone made the point to me that in Agent Anna all the men are perfectly happy, while the women are struggling."
Malcolm herself is certainly not struggling, despite some predictions she would do when in 2010 she fronted for New Zealand Actors' Equity as it tried to negotiate standard performer contracts for The Hobbit. This prospect sparked a threat to move the production overseas. "No, it's all been fine, but people were very angry at the time," she says.
Malcolm will continue commuting to Melbourne to film Upper Middle Bogan until the end of June and then from late July will appear in ATC's The Good Soul of Szechuan. Besides work, her sons and "the tsunami of life parenthood brings" keep her busy. She jokes Charlie and Pete are disappointed her career has not involved guns, zombies and football. "There's no romance about what I do. Someone asked them what I do once and they said, 'She sits and has her make-up done and talks too much'."
Although Pete has previously expressed interest in being a scientist, he has spent time in front of the camera. That's him we saw playing the son of bitterly separating parents in the final of the last series. "He said two lines," says Malcolm. "Muff diver" and "neo-conservative dickhead". He was only six at the time and didn't know what any of it meant. Now the boys are a little bit older, Malcolm tries to answer their questions truthfully, but given Pete's tender age when he asked what a muff diver was, she told him "it means a lady who likes fluffy things".
Speaking as executive producer, Malcolm says she is really proud of Agent Anna. "It's moved and grown from season one. The stories are more complex, with stronger comedy and more surprises, with a wonderful range of actors."
She also credits the story-writing team. "Everyone has different skill sets, which contribute to the richness of the scripts."
• Agent Anna returns for its second season at 8.30pm on June 5, on TV One. Look out for Nick Grant's preview of the first episode in next week's Living.