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TV Review: HBO's Summer Heights High, Starring Chris Lilley, King of Gestalt Comedy 

Three characters, one actor — high school musical chairs

Wednesday, Nov 12 2008
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What do an up-talking, status-obsessed, private-school queen bee named Ja’mie; an excitable, if power-mad, drama teacher called Mr. G,; and Jonah, a bullying class nuisance of Polynesian ethnicity, have in common on HBO’s imported Australian comedy Summer Heights High?

They’re all played by the show’s creator, Chris Lilley, a soft-featured, loose-limbed wind-up doll whose impish persona-switching gifts have made him a big comedy star Down Under. American audiences may be familiar with multiple-personality stars Matt Lucas and David Walliams of Little Britain and, of course, face-changing virtuoso Tracey Ullman, but where those U.K.-generated comics work best under isolated, near-vaudevillian circumstances in which their accents, costumes, wigs and face putty are the tools of freakish showmanship — the disappearing act as anything but a disappearance — Lilley has an impressionistic approach to character comedy. His personal gear is light, but gestalt is king.

Lilley blends in with and bounces off a world we recognize — which, in the case of Summer Heights High, is a fictionalized public school where the aforementioned characters are captured documentary-style over the course of a year. For Lilley, any bravado in his performance comes from the confidence gained by putting on a bangs-in-the-eyes-but-otherwise-unassuming-shoulder-length wig, a dress uniform, or with no makeup and just the slightest rise in vocal register. This 30-something man can run with a pack of stuck-up teenage schoolgirls and seem like he belongs. It makes for a kind of meta-laughter, in which you react not only to a funny character but also to an inherently silly act of chameleonry played straight.

click to enlarge JOHN TSIAVIS - Drama queen: Lilley as Mr. G
  • John Tsiavis
  • Drama queen: Lilley as Mr. G

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This is why Lilley typically shines in the mock-documentary format. Although it’s a genre that is fast wearing out its alterna-comedy welcome in our post–The Office world (when are lazy imitators going to realize that the British series was painstakingly written out and crafted to look off-the-cuff?), it’s the ideal showcase for Lilley’s skills as a comedy scene-stealer and actor with a compassion for life’s misfits. His characters are all attention-grabbers, with little regard for the reality of how they come off. But not everything is for the sake of a joke and a cutaway to a horrified person nearby. Tonga troublemaker Jonah (which Lilley affects easily with only curly hair and a jutting Islander dialect) is an undisciplined, ADD-afflicted class clown for whom “fuck you” is “hello,” everyone outside his gang is a “homo,” and every surface within vicinity of his pen warrants the drawing of a penis. His default insouciance is presented as both puerilely funny (to us) and exasperating (to every adult in sight), but there are dramatic touches that underscore everything: the occasional appearance of a stern father who obviously makes life difficult for Jonah at home, and a remedial English teacher who considers Jonah – who doesn’t read well — a project for whom the occasional bursts of educational enthusiasm are worth the spasms of loutishness and pranks. Jonah notices that, too. At one point he offers the camera a rare, almost poignant glimmer of praise for an authority figure: “She laughs at me.”

There is less-complicated humor to be found with Ja’mie, who is actually a crossover from Lilley’s last series We Can Be Heroes (retitled The Nominees for its airing on the Sundance Channel last year), a show in which the writer-actor played five different candidates for Australian of the Year. A snobbish overachiever who sponsored 85 Sudanese children because it was a national record, Ja’mie is at Summer Heights as part of an exchange program with a public-school kid, which for Ja’mie is practically a Third World immersion. When Ja’mie’s assigned companion — a geeky girl who obviously repulses her — points out the alpha female clique, Ja’mie asks, “Are they mean to you?” “Yes,” she replies. Ja’mie chimes back, “Can you introduce me to them?” Not surprisingly, Ja’mie’s quick inclusion with the hot girls is just as quickly undone by her snarky backstabbing, which Lilley plays as if it were a form of rich-bitch Tourette’s.

Perhaps the most enjoyably comic monstrosity is Mr. G (another Lilley transplant from another show), whose high regard for his theatrical abilities — from his one-man “Starlight Express” to his show “Tsunarmama,” which told the tragedy of the 2004 tsunami through the music of Bananarama — is matched by questionable taste and a crushing ambition. When family matters require the dowdy, classics-minded drama head to take a leave of absence, Mr. G takes over and appoints himself director of performing arts. (Imagine Corky St. Clair as a tin-pot dictator.) That means axing the planned senior show — “Anything Bloody Goes” he snidely refers to it — and replacing it with his quickie musical version of the story of a female Summer Heights student who was recently found dead after taking Ecstasy. Mr. G talks excitedly about the “wild qualities” of his “sexy” subject — “One Girl, One Pill, One Hell of a Night” reads his poster for “Annabel Dickson The Musical” — so he hopes the auditions attract the like-minded. “I am asking some of the sluttier girls to get involved,” he says.

Lilley received some negative press in his native country over this storyline, when the tragic real-life Ecstasy-related death of a high school girl with the same first name coincided with the initial airing of Summer Heights High. The series had already been shot, so what looked like crassness was actually horrible circumstance. In the show’s context, though, the edginess mostly plays as a rich goof on self-aggrandizement, and Lilley is sharp enough to keep the laughs away from grief and aimed squarely at Mr. G’s cheery arrogance, his belief that he’s got a crackerjack artistic prism through which to process life’s misfortunes. The irony, of course, is that to play such people requires a hefty amount of performance confidence, too. But what’s always evident in Summer Heights High is that the only thing being exploited is Lilley’s own ebullient and fertile talent.

Summer Heights High | HBO | Sundays, 10:30 p.m.

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