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.