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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. Richard I’ve never met Chris in my life, although he did sit in a row behind me at a concert once. In fact if you go through this site you’ll see he hasn’t even been interviewed here, including on any red carpet. I give reviews based on content, and I don’t review shows if I have attended in the audience either, because it’s not the same experience as watching via the box. You continually bring up issues of not being given a go in the industry, fair enough. But every post?

    My experience is artists (in any arena, not just television) get somewhere through persistence. They have something to say that separates them from the pack. Only after they have proven themselves to these supposed doors start opening. As we know there’s never really any such thing as an overnight success. Perhaps you should be making your art and putting it out there. There are community TV stations (unless you live in Perth), there’s YouTube, Internet TV, there’s theatre, community radio, hey you can even put your art on your own blog. Frustrated creatives should spend more time being creative, not frustrated…

  2. i never watched it coz to me it looked like exactly what these american reviewers say it is- so i didn’t bother. but i think the term rangas is highly offensive. when that cricker bloke got called a monkey it was a huge controversy and was highly offensive to him, so how is calling people with red hair orangutans any less offensive? just what the world needs – the invention of more derogatory and insulting words. it is racism- just because red heads don’t have a unifying culture any more they still have the same ancestors, and this term encourages discrimination based on a physical characteristic that is genetically inherited. no one knows who to blame for the invention of the n word but we know who to blame for the invention of ranga.

  3. is chris your pal david? because be truthful the whole making fun of a dead student really was not funny or clever it was a cheap shot for laughs and it offended many people including the parents of a girl whose name was very similer to the characters in shh. As i’ve said many times on this website only the chosen few are given the chance to do a series in this industry and others with good ideas and good products get ignored because they are not mates with the right people.

  4. It could also be that plenty of people don’t find it that funny. Like me.

    It’s amusing but gets very, very wearing after a short time. Some people, like the fine proprietor of this site, liked it. Some people didn’t. Americans are entitled to dislike an Australian show, we dislike plenty of theirs.

  5. I whole heartedly agree with the critic from the Daily Herald. I missed SHH the first time around and have been watching it in repeat the last few weeks, and agree that although the characters of Ja’ime and Mr G are very well written, and most of all funny, I actually don’t understand why he decided to include Jonah at all. Rarely have I laughed at Jonah’s comments and find his puerile comments and rude nature quite jarring after the more sly *but clever) humour written for Mr G (and to a less degree) Jamie.

  6. @silly gostly

    “It seems that virtually any mediocre series can succeed in this country just as long as it’s locally made (City Homicide, Rafters and SHH spring to mind).”

    You are entiltiled to your opinion but i and almost everyone i know think that City Homicide, Rafters and SHH are some of the best shows to ever grace our screens, much more than “mediocre” and not just because they are Australian, atleast theyre better than alot of the american crap. I know alot of people that are happy to say that PTTR is the best show that they haver ever seen.

    and not all aussie shows rate, just look at rush and strip (rush deserving more and stip not deserving a single view.)

    SHH is the best, can’t wait for lilleys new project

  7. Wonder what the same reviewers thought of We Can Be Heroes? For while I like SHH, for me We Can Be Heroes is a better show – it is perfect. WCBH had likeable characters – Ricky Wong, Pat Mullins and even try hard Phil Olivetti to balance the stuck up Ja’mie King and Daniel Sims constant swearing at his brother Nathan. All three in SHH are annoying, not anyone you can warm to.

  8. are you guys serious i cannot see how anyone that has anything to do with a school (which is a lot of people) wouldn’t find this funny.

    it might be the age of all you people means that you are out of touch with stuff but seriously. this show has changed our schools whole culture. red heads are now only known as rangas, there are dicktations everywhere, people have no problems rattling off quotes in every conversation. and there is always a person with the DVD on them to watch during spare time at school. and this is a year after it aired

    everyone loved it, they can relate so much, lilley is so talented.
    whether its successful in America or not is another story. there are lots of australian themes, slang, and even brand names that they won’t understand

  9. To be fair, SHH simply wasn’t very good IMO; and we certainly don’t need the Yanks or Brits to tell us that. SHH is basically a string of prejudiced humour which is only considered acceptable due to the self indulgent (and stereotypical) nature of the characters. In retrospect, I’ve found that the series is really quite shallow and there isn’t anything even remotely clever about it (though I think they should be commended for showing disabled kids on screen, which unfortunately, is something we see very little of on TV).

    I’ll admit that I’ve watched the entire series, and it had some amusing moments, but I wouldn’t want to watch it again. It seems that virtually any mediocre series can succeed in this country just as long as it’s locally made (City Homicide, Rafters and SHH spring to mind).

  10. I’m surprised that reviewers never bring up the Christopher Guest film ‘Waiting For Guffman’ when writing about the character of Mr G and Lilley’s documentary style. Lilley appears to be heavily influenced by Guest’s work, especially with Mr G.

  11. Variety sums up beautiffuly what I think about their version of Kath & Kim … silly, irritating … and pointlessly overacted! While some of the other critics do “get it” (surprisingly) it is obvious that Variety are so far up their own American a***s that they would not know good comedy if it slapped them with a cream pie!

    Above all … these characters are honest summaries of many very real school kids and teachers which, as usual, the Amreicans are in so much denial that they can’t see what is right infront of their noses every day!

    Give me Brittish Comedy any day over American … at least the British realise that there are other countries in the world beside North and South America … and maybe Canada!

    Jack!

  12. Why do Australian’s get so defensive about American critics views on our TV shows?

    “Americans reviewing something that involves a sense of humour ? I don’t think so.”… oh come on… do I need to make a list of recent great US comedy?

  13. Americans reviewing something that involves a sense of humour ? I don’t think so. Let’s face it, on the whole, in the mainstream, the Americans don’t understand satire or irony.

  14. It is awful, and good on the yanks for saying it. Though they do have a hard time with subtle humor over there, unless you tell the punchline they don’t get it. But shh was never a favorite of mine it’s self indulgent ego performing with that whole look at what i can do thing from lilley. his characters are boring they suit a sketch comedy show more.

    But hey we aussie tend to find stupid things funny.

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