Six new Chris Lilley characters, so why does it feel like we've seen it all before?

Chris Lilley has a track record for being very very funny and at the same time, being utterly offensive.

Underneath it all is a sharp eye for detail and class comedy.

But the biggest offence in his new Netflix series Lunatics is that it isn’t very funny at all -at least not in the two episodes I watched. And I say that as a big fan of We Can Be Heroes and Summer Heights High.

Despite a long break since the disappointing Jonah from Tonga now it just feels like we’ve seen it all before. That’s despite a parade of new characters for our entertainment.

Lunatics showcases six borderline individuals whose eccentricities allow him to bring his mockumentary and improvisation skills to the fore, as we swing from one oddball scenario to another. All but one is Australian, although three take place in pseudo-international locales.

In Canberra we meet fashion manager Keith Dick, dressed in incognito black running a department store floor, (we’re a long way from Are You Being Served?) but with a dream of opening his own retail outlet and making out with his cash register named Karen.

“I live for fashion…. I’m a clothes whore,” he reveals.

At Butterfield College in the US is the uber-tall 18 year old student Becky. At first glance she is Ja’mie on steroid stilts, but more embracing of her world than Lilley’s most successful, sneering character.

Next is 12-turning-13 year old Adelaide boy Gavin, who has a slight speech impediment and a chip on his shoulder bigger than the distracting stomach padding. Gavin will be sent to the UK where is to become the next Earl of Gayhurst (geddit?) if they can get past his penchant for swearing and Instagram hijinks.

Quentin is a real-estate salesman in a family business, noteworthy for their oversized arses (there’s a lot of body parts this season). He is determined to take over the company, if full of brash talk over actual sales.

Former porn star Joyce is now an eccentric hoarder living on the Gold Coast (was this Abigail-inspired?). She lives in a rundown house full of toys, trinkets and pop-culture rejects with her friend Rhonda. If Grey Gardens were alive and living on the Goldie, it might look something like these two….

And then there is South African pet clairvoyant to the stars, Jana. A lesbian and self-proclaimed gay icon, she professes to communicate with dogs, cats, birds and more while she is surrounded by jungle-themed furnishings in her wealthy abode.

When the trailer for Lunatics dropped the predictable controversy was off and running with an outcry over another ‘blackface’ in Jana. Such reactions risk lacking context. Producer Laura Waters responded by saying Jana is white with a bad ’70s hairdo and while this isn’t on the same level as S’Mouse or Jonah, it’s clear there is pancake colouring going on (there are telltale signs where wig meets hairline, although I’m not about to enter into debates about what shade it is….).

The most successful of the new characters is Joyce, for the level of detail, props and dialogue, including everything from an extensive VHS collection to scrunchies, paper cranes & Juicy Fruit. Props to the props department.

Lilley, who also directs, elicits good performances from his unrecognisable supporting cast. They all go with the flow when he improvises, never upstaging the main star.

Alas not enough of the script meets the laughter threshold required to justify the episode commitment, and frankly Lilley now looks too old to be playing a teenager with bags under his eyes.

Not only could I not work out what the documentary pretext was, I also couldn’t grasp what it was trying to say about Lunatics…. to show their humanity beyond the appearances? To suggest we’re all a little bit lunatic and that’s ok? Dunno…

I fear that while the comedy world is under siege from political correctness and an era of outrage Lilley has actually toned down his act. Or maybe it’s just that I haven’t reached the offence in later episodes. Either way the end result leaves us feeling like we have seen it all before.

I suspect none of this will bother his audience, which is dominated by young males. When you are screening globally via Netflix, you can surely tap into enough of them to entertain a big audience. The broader audience drawn to earlier, unique work may be lost forever.

While I always long for Lilley to surprise me, the fundamental is that I have to be amused along the way. Journey over destination.  To deliver neither is far more problematic.

Lunatics is now screening on Netflix.

21 Responses

  1. I have just finished the entire ten eps and really enjoyed it. Yes more of the same … in terms of absurd larger than life characters but definitely laugh out loud moments from my three favourites … the South African aardvark lover and the tall teenage girl and the cash register loving retail guy. The other three I could take or leave but overall was funny to me

  2. This show is terrible, and I say that as a huge fan of his earlier work – even queued for hours to meet him. The main problem I have is that the characters have no sense of purpose. In We Can Be Heroes and Summer Heights High etc. they were all being documented for a shared reason, but here they don’t have that common aim for being filmed which is crucial to any mockumentary.

    Beyond that, it’s just not funny. Any time he plays a straight male it’s the same strained blokey voice and pointless swear words, and now we have weird theatre sports-like big backsides and inflatable legs on Becky and trying too hard to spin catchphrases out of Gavin. It’s just not funny. Maybe teenagers will love it.

    I’m also judging it harshly because at the same time I watched this I finished This Time with Alan Partridge, which plays as subtle and effortless in every episode. The contrast is…

  3. I got up to the introduction of the real estate agents with the big behinds, rolled my eyes and turned it off. I didn’t laugh or even grin once before then. Same old same old – the kooky female “ethnic” character, the young bogan boy from Adelaide with some sort of disability, we’ve seen all these before. Chris needs some new ideas pronto, but I feel this time around he’s done his dash.

  4. Watched 20 minutes of the first episode and switched off. Good production values but the content was a bit weird. What happened to good Australian comedy?

  5. Curious to know whether other TT readers who aren’t keen on this show like The Catherine Tate Show and other observational character comedy. I find with this sort of comedy, and even Kath & Kim, that the jokes aren’t always obvious, but very subtle. Each time I watch Kath & Kim repeats I pick up on a few lines that went over my head in previous viewings.

  6. I think it’s clever, it reminds me of some of the stupid/rubbish segments that have appeared on ACA and Today Tonight over the years (of which I no longer watch).
    Cook Real Estate agents gave me a laugh, dropping the muffins from the cake stand, putting them back on the stand, and offering them to a prospective customer.
    Maybe I can be easily be entertained, I just love it !

  7. Just watched the first episode. The funniest part for me is that the production company was conned into making it. They are obviously relying on the absurdity of the characters mannerisms and wardrobe to draw laughs rather than the situations and story line. It’s funny for a minute when you first see them and then it just falls flat after that. It’s like when you go to a fancy dress party. Everyone has a laugh at your costume when you first arrive and then by the end of the night you’ve taken it off because it’s not funny any more and uncomfortable. Time to call an Uber Chris Lilley and head home.

  8. Hits rock bottom, it’s like it made it up as he went definitely not funny, the tall bird is funny. The other characters you get over real quick and soon find annoying.

  9. I’m up to episode 6. Enjoying the characters Joyce, Keith and Gavin. Yeah there are a few funny moments, but there are bits I don’t quite get..

    In your Post David you have that he plays Rhonda, but he plays Joyce the ex porn star and hoarder.

  10. Bits are funny and laugh out loud. I love the pet pyschic and the ex pornstar they are the highlight! I agree tho should stop playing kids at this stage!!

  11. I would really like to see Lilley take on a heavyweight serious character, written by someone else for him. Perhaps a serial killer. His self-written social satire can be funny, but he’s been going to that well his entire career with diminishing returns.
    I’m not sure though that he is talented enough to shake his self-aware style of acting to really immerse himself in a serious character piece

  12. Not being a Netflix subscriber I’m unlikely to see Lunatics, but I’ve seen a few trailers online and have to agree it doesn’t look funny. Previews usually contain the funniest highlights, so if that’s as good as it gets then it won’t be laugh out loud. Rhonda the ex porn star turned collector does appeal to me though. I’ve found in Chris’s previous shows that there is always a standout character. I’d probably like to see a compilation of all Rhonda’s scenes.

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