Summer Heights High: the US reviews

They didn't like Kath & Kim and so far American critics aren't exactly buzzing over Chris Lilley's 'self-absorbed' characters.

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.

39 Responses

  1. first, im going to say that this show is australian. it was wirtten by australians and stars australians. do you know what that means?. it means it contains Our sense of humour ! down here in aus there is term called taking the p**s. it means teasing. we take the p**s out of each other all the time. sometimes we take it too far but for the most part its part of our culture to take the p**s out of people and things. thats the way it is down here. this show was highly contraversial and offended many, but its utterly halarious. other countries have different cultures and different senses of humour. ask any one down here that visits for a holidy from overseas will tell you that it took a while before they understod the sense of humour. open your minds guys.

    1. Glad you like Chris Lilley but you need a new Dictionary, and an Encyclopedia. Go and read up on Greek Comedy. Any more comments that do no conform to Comments Policy on this site (including racist, inflammatory and duplicate IDs) will not be approved.

  2. Why is everyone dissen on us americans, its one review. The shows hillarious and everyone i introduce it to agrees. Chris Lilley is a genus and is in the same catergory as Larry David and sasha barah cohen. Im surprised theres another famous austrailian on tv besides the crocodile hunter. Im also surprised u guys have tvs in 3rd world england and austrailia. long live USA

  3. I dont know about some Americans but i love this show. it is probably on my top 5 things of all time list. i kind of want to go to austrailia now after watching the show. anyway any americans who dont like it…why dont you watch tv for once? show is bloody brilliant.

  4. Those stupid Americans just don’t understand. Obviously they produce a lot of the best comedies, but whilst we can understand their style of humour and the context of their shows, they are incapable of understanding anybody else’s culture. Absolute pea brains…

  5. I think americans are so ignorant and the review proves it…. some of the american ‘comedy’ we have received in Australia, along with the late night one man shows not to mention many ridiculous un-funny comedy genre movies have been appalling. To have an American critic put down a hilarious Australian hit show in this way with references to being behind and all that angers me so much. I cant even put it into words except to say that America is so far up its own ass and on a whole have no sense of humour and no right to automatically slay our actually funny shows!

  6. It’s called freedom of speech. Let the Yanks think what they like about our shows without judging them, FFS it’s not that hard. I personally think the show is pretty good, but why should I judge others for not agreeing?

  7. @ Richard H – The whole program was written long before any tragic event. Did you see ‘The Games’ perchance?

    @ Steele – actually, it would be a relevation if you could list recent great American comedy that has been on mainstream television, and requires the viewer to use their intelligence

    @ newtaste – WCBH was funnier second time around, and I think if you watch the current repeat screening of SHH you’ll find the same thing.

  8. Far out. How can some people not find this even the slightest bit funny? SHH its my favourite show and some of the best humor I have ever heard. I guess some people are just a bit tighter about comedy than us Aussies. Lighten up.

  9. “Rangas” has been around far longer than SHH, and as far as I can remember doesn’t make *that* many mentions throughout the show. At least, less times than those read-head skits on skitHOUSE.

    I guess shows like this polarise opinions, depending on whether you think Mr Lilley is being satirical regarding offensive behaviour or is actually contributing to the stereotypes. I think he is a good enough comedian that he is really making fun of the people making fun.

    And what’s with this nationalisation of comedy/comedians? I like comedy on its mertis, who cares where the guy who wrote or performed it lives?

  10. Richard I reported all the controversy regarding the untimely coincidences of SHH storylines and real life incidents in 2007, including the apology from ABC management for any misunderstanding and including the fact that all SHH episodes were in the can before the death you’re referring to.

    But it’s 2008, if we kept dragging up each detail of each body of work rather than looking at it with an overview it would be hard to put anything in some context.

    As someone who has done a lot for emerging writers (including running workshops at the Aust, Centre for the Moving Image, and being a board member of the Screenwriter’s Conference) let me suggest that an agent won’t represent your passion in the same way that you will. They are better suited for those who have proven themselves. My experience of Aussie producers is they will make time to share some advice if you go about things the right way and demonstrate why they should take notice of you. Don’t put an agent in between you and a producer at this point in your career.

    It doesn’t cost anything to collaborate with another writer, or to start a website of your work, or to volunteer, or to front up at community tv, etc.

    I welcome your comments on posts on this site, but as with any personal agendas when it gets to a point of getting off topic or repetition, that’s when I suggest people start their own blog! With this in mind, I’m now moving off advice in this post……Keep writing and keep telling stories. Passion eventually outs…..

  11. so the fact that he made fun of someones dead teenage daughter doesn’t rate a mention with you? okay, and yes i’ll continue to moan about it whilst i’m trying my butt of to crack the industry but you still need the right buddys to get things done. (fact of this industry)My agent tries hard but has been told to forget it the doors are well and truely closed to newbies.

    Ps most artists are broke i am one of them it’s a challenge to feed yourself let alone buy equipment, anyway i’m a writer not a director or filmmaker.

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