Angry Boys makes its American debut tonight on HBO at 10 p.m. Eastern.
Chris Lilley, the Australian comedian, writer, director, actor and producer is back with a follow up to his hit mockumentary series Summer Heights High. That earlier series parodied life at an Australian high school, with Lilley playing three very different protagonists. Angry Boys, which aired in Australia in May and premieres tonight in the States, is also a mockumentary that focuses on the world of confused young people, except in this case it’s on a much grander scale. Heights by and large took place all under one roof, but Angry Boys spans the globe and obviously has a much larger budget, while Lilley takes on twice as many characters as he did in Heights.
In tonight's first episode (HBO is airing the 12-episode series at a rate of two episodes per week for six weeks), we meet Daniel and Nathan Sims, identical 17-year-old twins who appeared in an earlier Lilley mockumentary, We Can Be Heroes: Finding the Australian of the Year. Daniel is the bossy, obnoxious brother who talks to the camera and shows off by cursing, while Nathan is reclusive, largely due to his being deaf. Daniel brags about taunting his brother and the various ways he and his friends cruise up and down the main drag, but you can tell that despite (or due to) Daniel’s loud mouth, Nathan is probably the more interesting, intelligent twin, although he primarily communicates by giving the middle finger.
Lilley also plays Ruth “Gran” Sims, a prison officer at a juvenile prison in Sydney. Lilley goes light on the drag for Gran, with minimal makeup, some extra padding, and a no-nonsense, graying, Julia-Child-style hairdo. Gran says things like “You’re behaving like a bunch of fucking little dickheads,” or “Kick it, negro, kick it!” as she separates the boys into soccer teams based on skin color. But the boys love her, despite, or because of, her rough edges. When she says “I feel like I know how to treat bad boys,” she says it with tenderness and pride. Even when she teases them with “gotchas” about getting released early, Gran appeals to the little boys in the inmates by letting them help with her prized guinea pigs and by crafting ersatz “superhero” pajamas for them. “Can't tempt you with the Power Ranger jammies, Mohamed?” she asks one hulking inmate.
Not much happens in the first episode, as Lilley is mostly laying the groundwork for the series. We learn that Nathan will soon be completely deaf (Daniel blames his mother for making him laugh by using the word “cochlear”), while the boys rage over the fact that their mother’s boyfriend, Steve, is moving in. We also start learning how the various characters are connected..
The second half-hour is more overtly humorous, as we meet S.mouse, a young black rapper (played, yes, by Lilley) in Hollywood who writes hits that sound like Soulja Boy’s “Tell’em,” yet have squeaky-clean lyrics, much to S.mouse’s chagrin, who sees himself as a Kanye West type. S.mouse’s public persona is that of a young man who’s escaped the ghetto, but he, of course, has a very different origin story he tries to keep secret.
The S.mouse character is sure to start a few discussions, with a white man playing a black character and all. I didn’t find Lilley as S.mouse offensive so much as disconcerting (I couldn’t forget that he’s a white guy with an Australian accent). At first, the riffs on S.mouse seemed dated (rappers have funny names! They brag about their big houses and refer to them as “cribs”!) but the character got more interesting as we learned about his struggle to break out of the cushy persona his A&R people have set up for him and grab more street cred. There weren’t a lot of laugh-out-loud moments on the S.mouse plotline in this episode, but I liked the send-up of the falseness of the music industry, especially in regards to S.mouse’s manager. S’mouse’s dad. That character, Shwayne, Sr., is a little over-the-top, but I enjoyed how unimpressed and fed up he was with his idiotic son.
Things aren’t quite as silly back in Australia. Daniel acts out when he learns that Nathan will be going away to a school for deaf children while Gran talks about a former inmate who hung himself in his cell. Perhaps to make amends, she tries to look after a new inmate who is bullied by the boys once it’s revealed that part of the reason he’s in prison is for sexually assaulting a dog.
Thus far, the episodes aren’t especially strong on their own. Angry Boys seems to be building toward something bigger than a series made up of individual installments. Like Summer Heights High, Angry Boys is a slowly-expanding universe. We’ve already met four Lilley characters and have two more to go, one who seems to be a Tiger Mother variation on Cookie Kwan from The Simpsons, so we’ll see how that goes. Plus, as we meet the new characters, we have yet to find out how they’re all connected.
This may be a matter of taste, but while Lilley’s teenage boy characters seem to be his most popular, it’s his female characters that draw me in the most. Summer Heights High’s Ja'mie King, a sociopath who was as repulsive as she was compelling, should be in the pantheon of mean girls. Meanwhile, of the characters we’ve seen so far, Lilley seems to disappear into Gran the most. She dares you to mock her for her butchness and prized guinea pigs, yet you wouldn’t want to cross her. She seems genuinely good, yet I feel like we’re going to look around the corner and find her doing something awful.
Angry Boys doesn’t feel quite like the instant phenomenon Summer Heights High was (confession: I have not yet seen We Can Be Heroes). However, Lilley is one of those creative forces you want to keep an eye on because you’ll still be impressed by the magnitude, scale, and vision of his projects, even if the laughs are uneven or even uncomfortable. There’s always something a little frightening about Lilley’s shows; a scene that’s funny or sweet can instantly turn on you and become shockingly sad or angry or cynical and rude, and that’s especially the case so far with Gran and the twins. Based on Louie, a certain portion of the audience seems willing to embrace a comedy that can run off the rails and go to dark places. I haven’t fallen in love with Angry Boys yet, but in true A.V. Club spirit, I will remain cautiously optimistic.