The American reviews have begun for Summer Heights High which has its debut on HBO this Sunday night.
Variety was not amused saying in part: Cultural distinctions notwithstanding (will U.S. viewers double over at a Tongan accent?), Summer Heights High seldom rises above silliness and mostly proves just plain irritating.
Granted, annoyance is the primary emotion Lilley yearns to invoke, building the action around a trio of tone-deaf personalities that he plays: Mr. G, a flamboyant drama teacher, who creates an original musical based on a school tragedy; Jonah, a Pacific Islander punk with a surly attitude, who mutters garbled obscenities at teachers under his breath; and Ja’mie, a spoiled private-school girl reluctantly transplanted to SHH, who endeavors to fall in with the popular kids but regularly insults them along with everyone else.
The common theme — the trait that renders each of these personalities over-the-top cartoons — is utter self-absorption. It’s what prompts Mr. G in later episodes to fume that including Special-Ed kids will ruin his masterpiece; Jonah to accuse his father of improperly touching him to escape reprimand; and Ja’mie, who is supposed to be 16, to strike up a relationship with a 12-year-old boy. (These scenes, played by the 33-year-old Lilley in drag, cross from satirical to verge on creepy.)
At the risk of sounding obtuse about what was apparently a big hit in Oz: Sorry, but what’s the point? Lilley is a gifted mimic in a fast-talking Robin Williams kind of way, but if this is considered edgy, DVDs must be taking an awfully long time to reach Australia.
But Variety’s Brian Lowy admits he didn’t like Little Britain either. Meanwhile, Ted Cox at the Daily Herald in Chicago was kinder. Whilst it wasn’t a rave review by any means, Cox says he prefers the show over Entourage.
Both critics also made reference to Flight of the Conchords, but of course that’s more palatable for them -it’s New Zealanders in America.
The Daily Herald said: There are times when Lilley is so dry in the role, he seems to have stepped right out of a Christopher Guest satire like “Best in Show,” as when he explains, “Most of what I do has a grounding in education,” a remarkable boast for a teacher to make. He also has a little dog with what he claims is an “oversize brain.”
Yet, step away from Mr. G, and Lilley’s comic targets get a lot lower. Ja’mie is an Ozzie “Clueless” reject, a smug priss who says matter-of-factly, “I’m the smartest non-Asian in Year 11.”
The subtle racism implicit in that statement is spot on, which makes the considerably less subtle Jonah a bit confounding. He might technically be Tongan, but he could just as well be an Aborigine, and he’s no doubt seen that way down under. I don’t know if Lilley is trying to draw attention to how out of place minorities are still made to feel in the Australian public-school system, but he doesn’t do much to elevate Jonah to the level of a critique on that system. He’s just a bully and a lout who argues of his behavior, “It’s not disruptive. That’s entertainment.”
If Jonah had the spark of a star in the making – someone like so many standup comedians who look back on the origins of their careers as the class clown – that would be one thing, but he just seems a displaced loser.
By contrast, the lack of sensitivity is a hoot when Mr. G refers to special-education students as simply “specials.”
So make of it what you will, Aware One. I have to admit I prefer “Summer Heights High” to “Entourage,” the popular HBO show it follows, but that doesn’t mean either one makes for appointment viewing. Besides, “Summer Heights High” would seem a better fit to pair with “Flight of the Conchords” when it returns next year, not to ghettoize Oceanic comedies.