Was there ever a television series more utterly unnecessary than Jonah from Tonga? Even in the darkest days of Ja’mie: Private School Girl at least we knew that Ja’mie was always going to cruise through life, an eternal and unchanging sitcom character where what little laughs there were came from dropping her in different situations. Even Mr G and the Sims twins were characters he could safely bring back, being one-note comedy characters with no real story to tell.
But Jonah was different: back in Summer Heights High he was the only one with an actual plotline as his dumb antics eventually caught up to him and he slipped through the education system’s cracks, resulting in him finally being shipped off back home to an undetermined but seemingly unpleasant fate. Presumably, knowing what we know now, having at least some kind of story was why Jonah was the real success of Summer Heights High; it’s funny that Lilley hasn’t given any of his characters an actual story since.
Well, obviously it’s not that funny, because we’ve had to sit through 24 hour long episodes of formless crap since then. The more control over the end product Lilley has gained over the course of his career the less impressive that end product has been; as far as we know, he hasn’t worked with another writer since Ryan Shelton (who co-wrote We Can Be Heroes) helped out on Summer Heights High. And it shows.
Without the involvement of an actual writer, and with the show written, co-directed and produced by someone increasingly only interested in creating opportunities to dress up and hang around with teenagers, it shouldn’t have come as anything close to a surprise that Jonah from Tonga was nothing more that an over-extended do-over of Jonah’s story from Summer Heights High. Yet clearly it must have shocked the ABC: how else to explain their bizarre marketing efforts?
First they put the entire series up on iView for a weekend before the first episode aired. How airing the entire series was meant to work as a promotion for the series remains a mystery to us – perhaps they hoped people who watched the whole thing would let others know it wasn’t as rubbish as Ja’mie: Private School Girl had been. Only trouble with that theory is that it was pretty much exactly as rubbish as his last series, so previewing the entire thing seemed more like an attempt to screw around with the iView rating figures – increasingly the only way the ABC can claim people are still interested in Lilley’s work.
So now they had to try and get viewers for a show that hardcore fans – increasingly the only fans Lilley has left – had already seen. At first when the iView figures were soft, they could claim they’d expected the numbers to be low but once you added the inital iView figures it wasn’t that bad. But then the free-to-air ratings collapsed: by the final episode Jonah only had “a dismal” 246,000 viewers.
But wait! The ABC had an excuse there too – they’d released the Jonah from Tonga DVD two weeks before the show finished airing, so obviously all the viewers had… ahh, even they didn’t bother trying that one. Releasing the DVD early smelt like what it was: a last ditch attempt to try and recoup something from what has to have been one of their biggest flops in recent history. Everything they tried to do with Jonah from Tonga – even the briefly announced then cancelled live Q&A sessions at cinemas – has been about trying to cash in on Chris Lilley’s reputation as a comedy legend while avoiding the fact that audiences have no interest whatsoever in the material he’s churning out now.
Let’s just pause on that for a moment: Lilley has lost over a million free-to-air viewers between the start of Angry Boys in 2011 (it rated 1,368,000 – the ABC’s biggest show for the year) and the end of Jonah from Tonga. The ABC had iView back in 2011 too, so those million people didn’t merely take their viewing online. The ABC had a goldmine in Lilley, a bonefide superstar with international appeal, and now he’s nothing. Gardening programs rate better than he does now.
We’re fond of hyperbolic statements, so here’s another one: Someone should have been sacked for this total mismanagement of a vital resource. Someone should have said to Lilley “hey, constantly doing the same old same old with a bunch of unlikable characters who never change is going to eventually get boring”. In our society whiny, self-indulgent, annoying, spoilt teenagers are told what to do by grown-ups and then expected to do it: why the ABC and production company Princess Pictures decided to give one free reign in this case remains one great big puzzling mystery.