Here’s a new name to remember: Chris Lilley. He’s a comedian from Australia who within the next year, will likely become a household name. I (and many others) discovered Lilley with his fantastic TV comedy “Summer Heights High.”
“Summer Heights High” is probably the best representation of life in high school on television since “Freaks & Geeks.” It delves into a level of strange surrealism at times, yet still remains a frank look at high school from every perspective.
“Summer Heights High” is shot in mockumentary style like “The Office” but while “The Office” takes place in and around an office, “Summer Heights High” shows the characters’ lives solely on the school grounds of an Australian public school.
The story focuses on three different people, each one played by series creator Lilley. One is Mr. G, a flamboyant and pompous drama teacher. The next character is Ja’mie, a preppy girl (yes, he plays a girl) whose transferring from her private school to spend a semester with the “wife beaters and rapists” that occupy the public school system. The final, and best of his three characters is Jonah. Jonah is a Polynesian student with a love for break dancing, learning problems, and a knack for getting in trouble.
“Summer Heights High” doesn’t shy away from controversial subjects and is daring in its audacity to laugh at the kind of things that few do. A few examples include Mr. G’s attempt to make a musical about a girl overdosing on ecstasy and Ja’mie holding an AIDS themed fashion show.
Perhaps the most controversial subject covered on the show is Jonah. “Summer Heights High” contains much of Australian culture that may seem unfamiliar to most Americans but it is clear that Polynesian Jonah is the minority at Summer Heights High. Without care, Lilley’s performance could’ve come off as racist and something on the scale of black face. Despite the fact that Jonah might seem like a horrible stereotype of Polynesians with his cursing and illiteracy yet Lilley ultimately uses him to get a message across about the backward treatment toward minorities. Is placing Jonah in a program called Polynesian pathways where he is forced to hula dance in front of the entire school really helping him fit in better with the rest of the students? As Jonah might say, puck you, miss.
The reason I focus on Jonah so much is that he is not only the funniest but best developed of the show’s three main characters. His story becomes somewhat tragic in the finale and his transformation in the final scene is a little bit sad but even a little heartwarming. His final mark on Summer Heights High and break dancing in the middle of the street is nothing short of inspirational.
“Summer Heights High” is shot like “The Office” not just in its shaky camera movements or individual interviews, but also many shots of characters shot from a distance or maybe in a bush that gives the feeling of someone carefully following around a moment in the life of these people without breaking the natural order. Almost like viewing animals at a zoo.
“Summer Heights High” is also reminiscent of a Christopher Guest movie and Lilley himself has the potential to be Christopher Guest. Like Guest, he plays characters so distant from his true self with pitch-perfect precision. His stereotypical drama teacher Mr. G reminds me of the stereotypical southern bloodhound owner Guest portrayed in “Best in Show” just for the ability of convincing the audience that we’re not viewing an actor but an actual character.
Unfortunately, as of now “Summer Heights High” was only meant to be a one season show. It makes sense, because the final episode wraps things up nicely and makes it seem hard for the possibility of a second season. However, Lilley has done other short series with these characters including “We Can Be Heroes.” Hopefully, another spin off will be made sometime in the near future but I also can’t wait to see what other characters Lilley will create next.
“Summer Heights High” is groundbreaking without seeming like it. It’s a big f-you to modern education as both a mockery of the teachers who teach the kids and the kids who inhabit the classrooms. It’s groundbreaking not because of its style but how it shows high school from every single perspective, giving every possible character a chance to shine. Its style of humor can’t be defined. It’s black comedy that goes beyond the limits of usual black comedy and dry humor that is so amazingly deadpan that it’s hard to know when to laugh. If I had to choose I’d just say that it’s a style of humor all its own; totally original, totally new.
Recommended for fans of: The Office, Arrested Development, Freaks & Geeks, Best in Show, A Mighty Wind, Waiting for Guffman, This is Spinal Tap