High on Summer Heights

March 23, 2008

Chris Lilley’s Summer Heights Hight is an excellent new Australian comedy show that stands up to International standards. I like to wait to see interesting TV shows either on DVD or pirated off US TV, etc, so I waited for this show to come out locally on Digital Versatile Disc. It was well worth the wait. Summer Heights High is as Mr G might call it “Comedy Gold”.

Lilley stars in three roles; that of Mr G, a bossy fey drama teacher with a heart of mold and a megalomaniacal streak, Jonah, the bully delinquent Tonga school boy and Ja’mie the up her self private school exchange kid. The show is deeply perverse in its humour content and even in Lilley’s performance with a character like Ja’mie. How did 32 year old Lilley convince the ABC he wanted to star in drag along side 16 year old school girls, date a twelve year old boy all the time making every sexist, homophobic and racist comment imaginable. If I wanted to do that, I’d probably end up arrested or locked up in the funny farm, God knows be able convince the ABC to fund a TV series out of it!

Anywho, the show is brilliant and so “random” on a number of levels. The humour is delightfully cruel and un-PC touching on a number of sensitive areas in most unsensitive ways like race, class, homosexuality, mental handicaps, etc. The three main protagonists are archetypal Australian school characters, the over ambitious gay drama teacher, the bully delinquent Islander student (standing in for an Aboriginal student, perhaps?) and the bitchy up herself girl.

The show is clever, it starts cruel but it slowly lets you learn to like these characters, in particular Jonah. At the start he is an annoying thick headed student who disrupts every class constantly, that you find funny… but you dislike him. But soon you see home problems, the failure of the school ‘system’ and learning difficulties are behind some of his problems. The ending with Jonah being expelled and the one teacher who understood him, was actually moving and very well done.

Mr G is a hit classic character, he is completely insensitive to all around him as he pursues his grand dream of artistic creation. He delights when the head of drama leaves (due to a family illness) and he takes over the school musical. He drops the old play and after a student dies of an E overdose, he makes this the subject of his new musical. After the parents complain about the script that describe their dead daughter as a drug taking slut, Mr G self titles a rewrite and makes it all about him trying to save a girl from drugs. Mr G is brutal about telling students their failings to the point of abuse and hates the disabled students. The disabled character of Toby eventually takes over the lead in the play when an actor drops out at the last minute and Mr. G finally accepts and gets along with him. This is a great Down Syndrome character in Toby, as opposed to recent cinematic The Black Balloon. Toby overcomes Mr. G’s prejudice and ends up portraying one of the best parts in the bizarre Strictly Ballroomesque stage show in the series final – “Mr G”. A catchy song called Naughty Girl is out now as a single with choruses like “E-E-E-E-E Esctasy” and “She was a naughty girl with a bad habit, bad habit for drugs”.

Ja’mie is the most irredeemable character in the show, a stuck up private school bitch that comes to Summer Heights and calls them all “povo” and “losers”. She highlights, no screams out, the class distinction in Australia well with her snobby bitchy ways. She hates the fugly girls she’s first put with and then she dumps them and then hangs with a group of 16 year old “hotties”. To be different, fashionable and stand out she dates a year seven 12 year old student, pretends to be a lesbian and organises a school formal by faking an AIDS charity to get the funds for it. She has some great lines like “I’d rather be a pedophile, than a lesbian” and she consistently abuses the public school kids for being povo and having no future. She is deeply self absorbed and her character is completely classic.

Chris Lilley’s performances are truly amazing. He nails each character and deserves major awards for his work here. He did win a Logie for his last show We Can be Heroes, but this work here deserves AFI’s and International recognition. I can’t speak highly enough of how good he is in his characters. The performances are detailed, observational, cruel, hilarious, mannered and true to life. The shows style of a mockumentary and the direction by Stuart McDonald too is tight, funky and fast moving… like an Australian The Office.

The show works with its mix of savagery and tenderness because life is like that, especially school life. People and especially school kids are not politically correct. They are racist, sexist, homophobic, whatever and Summer Heights High captures this reality with brilliant sardonic satirical wit and observational humour. It reflects life in Australia as it is and not how The Government would like it to be perceived or portrayed. I for one look forward to whatever Mr Lilley does next. Maybe, we hope, even a Summer Heights 2?

As opposed to the Aussie cinema doldrums, Oz TV seems to be producing some classic works at present. I am ten episodes into Underbelly, the TV series about the Melbourne crime war and its the best Australian TV show since Blue Murder. I’ll file a report on this Aussie masterpiece when I see the last three eps.

Australian cinema must lift its game as local TV has clearly surpassed it…


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