Remember when Chris Lilley would finish a series, drop the mic, and vanish in a cloud of “I’m not sure what I’ll do next, enjoy the next couple of years desperately waiting to hear back from me suckaaaaaaz”? Not no more he don’t: Ja’mie: Private School Girl hadn’t even finished before the ABC was hurriedly calling out “hey, come back, he’s going to do Jonah next… you guys still like Jonah, right?” Wasn’t there going to be a “guess which character Chris Lilley’s going to bring back next” contest to build anticipation? Guess you can’t really get people excited about a complete waste of time.
Oh, before we forget even though we’re never going to forget because ARRRGGGGHHHH: what was the thinking behind that scene where we see Ja’mie topless on stage and it’s clearly Chris Lilley’s head super-imposed on a young girl’s body? Sure, comedy and horror often go together, but we’re guessing that wasn’t the reaction he was going for. How was that supposed to be funny? Was it meant to work as a character moment? Don’t look at us. Seriously, don’t look at us, we’re still shaking.
The only explanations we can come up with – once we passed over “he thought it’d be funny” – are kind of disturbing. Either Lilley really really wanted to see for himself what Ja’mie would look like topless (eww), or he really really wanted to ram down the viewers’ throats his conviction that Ja’mie is “real”. This isn’t a drag act, this isn’t a 40-something man making fun of teenage girls; this is a real person he’s created. Only, you know, she’s not real and the whole sequence is creepy as fuck.
Which does tend to sum up the series as a whole. Usually deeply personal and utterly strange stories like Ja’mie: Private School Girl turn out to have some merit even when they don’t work. There’s clearly a whole bunch of bizarre subtext going on here: Ja’mie’s close to some kind of breakdown during much of the final episode, the mother probably killed herself ten seconds after the end credits, all the homophobic and body concious stuff was in no way resolved and the whole thing had all this weird energy building up underneath that was never released. So why wasn’t it more interesting?
A few brief moments aside where the camera lingered on other characters, Ja’mie was so in love with Ja’mie it felt like a series she’d had made about herself to promote herself. Presumably Lilley thought her not winning the Hillford medal was enough of a disaster for her to deal with as a reflection of her self-obsessed and shallow world, but it just felt like the kind of no-stakes, she’ll-win-in-the-end-anyway “drama” she would have chosen for herself.
If it’s possible to be frustrated by Lilley at this stage, it’s because even after all these years he still shows signs of potential. On the rare moments when Lilley allowed something to actually happen, or Ja’mie actually interacted with someone past rolling her eyes and insulting them (or talked over the top of them; did this series really need that many scenes that involved teenage girls talking over the top of each other?), or the series stepped back a little to reveal some minor awareness that Ja’mie really is a horrible person, Ja’mie briefly seemed like something worth watching.
So when exactly did Chris Lilley lose it? See, for us he never really had it; We Can Be Heroes was lazy, derivative television made by someone clearly more interested in baldly laying out his own personal obsessions than trying to find comedy in them, capped off with lazy tugs at the heartstrings designed to give depth to a show that never earned it. So for us, his current decline is basically “what took you so long?”
Put another way, the first time you encounter the work of Chris Lilley is always going to be the high point of his career for you. We really enjoyed his stuff on Big Bite and what we saw of The Hamish & Andy Show but it’s all been downhill from there because he does the same thing over and over; the only thing that’s changed is how much time he awards himself to indulge himself. On Big Bite Mr G was doled out in three minute segments two or three times an episode: Ja’mie gave us 150 minutes of Ja’mie, and that was after she’d been in eight episodes of Summer Heights High and six episodes of We Can Be Heroes. What more was there to say?
But people still tuned in, at least at first. What went wrong? One theory is this: the more time Lilley takes to stretch out his characters, the more the cracks show. None of his characters have any real depth – seriously, if you try to argue this point you need to go outside and talk to the first person you meet for five minutes because you have no idea how human beings work – but even compared to the two-dimensionality of his supreme achievement Jonah (I’m a smart-mouth dickhead BUT I have a troubled home life and learning difficulties!) Ja’mie is cardboard. The only way you could confuse her with an actual teenage girl is if you’ve never spent more than five minutes with a real teenage girl and yet supposedly Lilley spent months on his research. Surely once he wrote down “bitchy” in his notebook he could have gone home?
Lilley never found anything new to say with Ja’mie. Clearly he was in a bind: since Summer Heights High his biggest fanbase has been teenagers, so he couldn’t exactly demolish her on camera – even if he’d wanted to, and that’s more than a little doubtful. One of the weirdest yet most consistent elements of Lilley’s “comedy” has been his desire to make awful comedy characters then expect us to love them as much as he clearly does. But with Ja’mie, who is nothing but awful, this desire to ensure she always comes out on top is doing both the viewers and the character no favours.
Maybe if he’d made Ja’mie the butt of his jokes in a multi-character show then keeping her superficial would have worked. But as the lead (and only) character in a series, we’re entitled to expect her to have some kind of inner life. Instead, there’s nothing in the 150-odd minutes of Ja’mie to explain why Ja’mie is so horrible (apart from money and indulgent parents, which doesn’t explain anything). There’s nothing here to explain why the other kids follow her, nothing to explain her last minute flip into bi-sexuality – does anyone believe Ja’mie really loves anyone but herself? – nothing to suggest she has any layers at all beyond the surface she shows.
Clearly Lilley was aware that Ja’mie wasn’t a plausible human being, because it’s one of the few problems this show had that he tried to solve. Unfortunately, we’ve already discussed his solution: his way to make Ja’mie a more realistic character was sticking his head on a real teenage girl’s topless body. Not, you know, actually writing a character with more than one dimension.
And what’s with all the hilarious comedy racism? Lilley presumably isn’t racist himself, but he’s been leaning pretty heavily on the racism crutch since day one. At least with We Can Be Heroes there were some actual aborigines there to look appalled at Ricky Wong’s dodgy musical; in Ja’mie: Private School Girl we had a massively racist lead character who was massively racist and… that’s it. There was no commentary on her racism, no moment where it paid off comedically (“what, you mean dad is… half black?!”), no point where it was anything else more than “yeah, I’m racist, whatever”.
“But Ja’mie’s not meant to be someone you emulate – she’s a monster” says someone seemingly angling for a job as a broadsheet television reviewer. Well, let’s take a look at this common misconception. Sure, Ja’mie acts horribly throughout the series. She doesn’t seem to be punished much for it though, does she? She throws some tantrums over minor things so clearly she personally feels like she’s missing out, but she gets the boy back (then dumps him), has her revenge on a school that dared deny her something she felt she deserved then goes off to another school where not only does she keep her old friends but makes a whole bunch of new ones. If Ja’mie is a monster then Ja’mie: Private School Girl is Triumph of the Will.
Oh look, a Nazi comparison, we’ve totally gone off the deep end now. Maybe so: they’re still both psuedo-documentaries focusing on a thoroughly unpleasant racist sod with the goal of turning their vices into virtues. Seriously, what was the point of Ja’mie: Private School Girl? What was Lilley trying to say with it? What kind of world view did the show have? What kind of attitude did he have towards his central character? Was there ever a point where anyone got the feeling that Lilley wasn’t revelling in Ja’mie’s bitchiness, wasn’t glorifying in the attention she constantly demanded, wasn’t smirking away as he flung insults in every direction?
Lilley said in just about every interview he did for this show that Ja’mie was a horrible person. Then he made a show about how awesome she is. That pretty much says it all.