Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Summer Heights High: Premiere

Illustration for article titled Summer Heights High: Premiere
Illustration for article titled Summer Heights High: Premiere

Summer Heights High is a perfectly entertaining, well-made and sharp-witted comedy made for fans of shows like The Office and films such as Waiting for Guffman. The only downside (based on the pilot) is that it still needs to demonstrate how it is much different from such faux-documentary cringe-realism fare.

Imported from Australia, it features the work of comedian, producer and writer Chris Lilley, who plays three separate characters in this would-be reality TV show about the eponymous high school. He plays Greg Gregson, the over-the-top effeminate drama teacher who seems like the Australian Corky St. Clair. He also takes on Ja'mie, a bizarrely confident Queen Bee exchange student sent to the public Summer Heights High from a private school. And he also plays Jonah, a Polynesian problem child, which I found most impressive. The first two characters are instantly recognizable and easily mocked but Jonah is also a new type of character in a comedic show. The quote "Fuck you, sir," kind of nails the role down: you can see why Jonah's a pain in the ass to his teachers but you like him just the same. Lilley embodies the bad-but-maybe-well-meaning kid so well—the mumbled verbal diarrhea, the sprawling limbs, the physical affection with his boys. The other students in the show are played by real kids; it's a testament to both Lilley's and their own acting ability that it doesn't seem totally strange that an actor in his mid-30's is playing someone who pals around with 13-year-olds.

In the premiere we just get to know the school and the main characters and the biggest laughs come from Greg Gregson, who inserts lines into his drama class scenes like "Thank god you're here—grandma's been raped" or, my favorite, "Thank god you're here—where've you been, bitch?" There is a lot of "Check out our political incorrectness!" type humor, especially aimed at Asians and rape and special-ed kids, which I didn't find offensive but just a little played, a bit like the initial formula of the show (minus Lilley's playing three characters).

That said, Lilly is obviously incredibly talented and this show definitely should be put on season pass for anyone who does enjoy the Guest movies, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Flight of the Concords or either version of The Office. Which brings me to the point that this show is Australian and not a remake in the Kath and Kim model. I'd heard from some Australian fans that "Americans won't get it." First of all, screw you Aussies. But moreover, the show got no more lost in translation for me than the British Office: a few phrases may not be entirely clear but the awkwardness and cruelty of high school and the comedic ability of Lilley are loud and clear here in the States.

Grade: A-

Stray observations:

—Some of the similarities between the pilot and Waiting for Guffman are uncanny, like the posters from previous shows that Mr. G's done such as "Downloadin'" and "Ikea the Musical."

—The production quality of the show is quite strong, from the B-roll of the school to the string soundtrack.

—One more program Summer Heights High reminded me of, vaguely, was the British 7-Up series, which could use some yukking up.