Since 2007, TV Club has dissected television episode by episode. Beginning this September, The A.V. Club will also step back to take a wider view in our new TV Reviews section. With pre-air reviews of new shows, returning favorites, and noteworthy finales, TV Reviews doesn’t replace TV Club—as usual, some shows will get the weekly treatment—but it adds a look at a bigger picture.
The Australian comedian Chris Lilley belongs to that special group of performers—like Whoopi Goldberg or Tracey Ullman—who can function as their own repertory company, transforming themselves into one character after another. In Lilley’s first mockumentary-style TV series, We Can Be Heroes: Finding The Australian Of The Year (shown on Sundance as The Nominees), he played half a dozen characters, including a middle-aged woman, a Chinese student, and twin teenage brothers.
He also promoted the show by appearing on Australian talk shows posing as his own characters, in full makeup and costume. He tended to get his strongest audience reactions when he plopped a lank, dark-haired wig on his head and talked clueless, hateful drivel as Ja’mie (pronounced “Jah-MAY”), a teenage mean girl who promotes herself for attention and honors based on her charitable works, while every word out of her mouth reveals her as a self-centered, shallow bigot. Lilley brought Ja’mie back in the 2007 series Summer Heights High, a popular comedy in Australia that had limited, cult success with American audiences. Now she’s the center of his latest series, which documents her senior year at the prestigious Hillford Heights Grammar School.
Somebody at HBO must really love this kind of thing, because they’ve stuck with Lilley even after importing his last two series, Summer Heights High and Angry Boys, to lukewarm reception. In the ’90s, HBO also gave comedian Tracey Ullman a chance to show off her wig changes and accents in a string of shows, after Fox canceled her critically beloved but low-rated variety series. Ullman’s failure to attract viewers was never as mysterious as many reviewers wanted to believe; her showy technique, which was often lavished on some very thinly written characters, stuck out in a way that was more impressive than entertaining. She was so much funnier and more appealing when she dropped her mask on talk shows that you just wished she’d lose the Meryl Streep act and be herself.
Lilley has a different problem: He ain’t all that. His ambitions far outstrip his imagination and abilities. As he becomes more successful (in Australia, at least), he’s begun stretching his own thin characters across bigger canvases. Angry Boys ran four episodes longer than Summer Heights High, with Lilley portraying a multitude of characters in the course of 12 episodes. With his new series, he’s scaled back to six episodes again, but every second of screen time is focused on a flimsy character who scarcely merits the viewer’s attention for six minutes.
Ja’mie: Private School Girl amounts to three hours of watching a skinny, long-faced guy in his late 30s flouncing around with what looks like a horse’s tail on his head, looking as if he’d learned to dress from watching old Britney Spears videos. Lilley is the whole show: Ja’mie’s posse of mean-girl lieutenants, her “gay bestie,” and the guys she hooks up with are barely sketched in and, for the most part, have no presence at all. They’re just there for Lilley to use as human props. Whether Ja’mie is dancing seductively, buttering up her dad, singing at school assemblies, or boasting of having invented the slang term “quiche”—it means “hot, but it’s a step above hot,” and it’s a term she uses to describe herself—Lilley never comes across as a character, but just as a dude pretending to be a teenage girl for a giggle. If that’s the idea, it’s a hell of an endeavor to try to hang an entire series on such a slight premise (The “plot,” about how Ja’mie’s ambition to win the coveted Hillford Medal is imperiled after she flashes a guy on Skype, might sustain a 10-minute sketch on Saturday Night Live.)
Ja’mie is so drawn-out and lifeless that the mind wanders, wondering if there might be something ugly about the popularity of this character. After all, Ja’mie gives Lilley free rein to portray youthful female sexuality as grotesque, and to depict a manipulative but successful teenage girl as if she were one of the most dangerous people in the world—all through the finely honed art of sloppy, transphobic drag. Or to marvel at how much faith Lilley seems to have in the laser-beam satirical power of the mockumentary format, long after shows like Modern Family have turned it into an easy way to include jokes that can’t be worked into the dialogue by just having the actors speak right to the camera. His misplaced faith in an overused style mirrors HBO’s faith in him—inexplicable, but stubborn, and not likely to end anytime soon.
It’s hard to imagine the reasons for Lilley’s popularity at home. In a country where Barry Humphries’ Dame Edna Everage is a national institution, his drag performances may appear to be upholding and extending a great tradition. But Lilley has yet to demonstrate one-tenth of Humphrey’s talent and commitment. Millions of Australians might not be wrong to find him hilarious—but the millions of Americans who have yet to fathom his appeal aren’t wrong, either.
Created by: Chris Lilley
Debuts: Sunday, 10:30 p.m. Eastern, HBO
Format: Six-part comedy series
Six episodes watched for review