Jonah from Tonga marked a big step forward in Chris Lilley’s career: it was the first time in living memory he gave characters not played by himself serious air time. Ok, by “serious air time” we mean “an occasional solo moment”, but by Lilley’s standards that was massive. One of our biggest complaints against Lilley’s work pretty much right from the start has been the way he’s totally dominated every series, turning scene after scene into nothing more than an extended monologue with – occasionally – other characters trying (and failing) to get a word in. Even when the characters are meant to be part of a double act he hogs all the glory; does anyone remember anything about the son of the Asian mother from Angry Boys? Or Ja’mie’s teen girl rival in Ja’mie: Private School Girl?
So by making Jonah’s high school teacher a foul-mouthed abusive thug with a heart of gold, Lilley seemed to be showing at least some awareness that his characters don’t exist in a vacuum (anyone remember any of Ja’mie’s teachers?). Lilley’s refusal to share a scene with any other character has been a huge limitation on the kinds of comedy he’s been able to do – when you’re the only one allowed to speak it’s hard to make snappy comebacks, for example – so any sign that he’s realised this is extremely welcome.
And yet, Jonah from Tonga was still massively shithouse in just about every way possible. Part of the reason Lilley had to let other characters get a word in is that Jonah from Tonga was a straight do-over of Jonah’s subplot in Summer Heights High, which involved him a): being a fuckwit, b): kind of coming around thanks to a tough love teacher before c): fucking up badly enough to get into serious trouble. Having an entire six episodes to fill, Lilley – who wrote, produced, and co-directed the series – expanded things a little, so we got two “caring” teachers (a grumpy one and a “down with da kids” Tongan youth worker), and when Jonah’s screw-up landed him in prison, there was a warm-hearted prison guard waiting for him there.
Wow, for a kid who’s only attributes are swearing, making crap jokes and being a dickhead, grown-ups sure do seem invested in trying to help him turn his life around! Lets not forget that alongside the aforementioned paternal figures there was also a nun and his art teacher and Jonah’s male relatives all watching over him kindly. They might not get much of a character, or even any decent dialogue, but at least we know they care for Jonah. You know, that foul-mouthed loser who thinks it’s funny abusing kids on the basis of their hair colour.
Normally in a sitcom you’ll create a small number of rounded-ish characters and then hopefully you’ll get laughs not just through the situations they’re put in but how they interact with each other. In Jonah from Tonga, you get one rounded-ish character, a lot of very sketchy and/or improvised ones and some situations that don’t form a cohesive plot because they’re all built around the one central character. If Lilley was willing to break away from his teen fixation, this formula could work: he’d just have to play an adult who could move from place to place and situation to situation, meeting different people on the way. But because he instead chooses to only play characters trapped in one (or a very small number) of locations – basically, teenagers (or teachers) in school or prison – he actually highlights the weaknesses in his approach. He wants to make shows focused on him that are also about teenagers with no variety in their lives; if you want to entertain people, you can’t do both.
Meanwhile, Lilley’s commitment to reality – or just to making sure the focus stays firmly on him – means he stacks the cast with non-professional actors. Let’s be blunt for once: these guys just aren’t that good. Having teachers playing real teachers and so on probably seems like a decent idea if you’re an idiot, but there’s a reason why for the last three thousand years of Western Civilisation we’ve had these strange creatures known as “actors”: performing on stage – or in front of cameras – is a specialised and difficult task that, if you’re planning to make a real show and not just film yourself in some creepy game where you surround yourself with real teachers and students and force them to pretend you’re a teenager half your real age, requires specalised performers. Otherwise you just have something that looks sloppy and amateurish.
But the weirdest thing about all this – because really, pretty much all Jonah from Tonga‘s problems can be explained away by it being made by someone given total control to act out his fantasies of a never-ending teenage dream – is the way the whole thing ends up being a massive slap in the face to the character of Jonah even though the whole show is clearly bending over backwards not to offend anyone. Remember, this is a show about a machete-weilding armed robber who means well.
Let’s do a quick comparison with Lilley’s last show, Ja’mie: Private School Girl. They’re both shows about horrible self-obsessed people (yes, Jonah’s not as bad as Ja’mie, but neither of them are people you’d willingly spend time with). With Ja’mie, we’re given a range of reasons to justify her behaviour: over-indulgent parents, a school system that instills an sense of unearned privilege, her massive wealth. These are things that Lilley blames for how she’s ended up; they’re the causes behind the unpleasant character he plays.
With Jonah from Tonga though, while Jonah himself is a racist bully and an armed robber, his flaws are all internal. They have to be: Lilley goes out of his way to make sure that we see Islander culture as decent and a moderating force (which has no impact on Jonah because he’s a dickhead) while his school teachers try to steer him onto the right path and even his prison guards are responsible people who care for him. Lilley doesn’t want to seem racist, or to be having a swipe at over-worked and under-resourced public servants, so they’re all living saints who only want the best for Jonah. Well, apart from his dad, but even then having to put up with Jonah for fifteen years is more than ample justification for his occasional rough edges.
All this would be an interesting political message – Ja’mie’s wealth cushions her from the consequences of her behaviour while Jonah has to deal with every single slip-up he makes – except that Lilley is so desperate to not be racist or blame the school system with Jonah from Tonga that all the blame for Jonah’s bad behaviour is put back on Jonah himself. Ja’mie is part of a system that encourages her bad behaviour so it’s not her fault she’s bad: Jonah is part of a system that’s actually trying to turn around his bad behaviour, so when he remains a dickhead it’s all his fault. There’s no-one else to blame.
Oh wait, we’ve been overthinking all this way too much. Society has no influence on who you are and the situations you go through in life have no effect on your personality whatsoever because Chris Lilley doesn’t believe people change.
‘Most of my characters never change as [a series] goes along,” says Lilley. ”There’s a familiar structure to television where the character is a certain way and then they go through a certain experience and they become different, but I like the idea that people don’t change. That represents reality more.”
No wonder he still acts like he’s fifteen years old.