Angry Boys probably isn’t the biggest comedy flop of 2011 – Live From Planet Earth still retains that crown – but the term “massive debacle” isn’t exactly overstating the case. Let’s be blunt: in television it’s ratings that count, and the ratings for Angry Boys have been utterly shithouse. Worse, there’s no way to spin it as “an undiscovered masterpiece” or any of the other comforting phrases trotted out when a show fizzles out. The first episode pulled in 1.3 million viewers; by week eleven, that was down to 465,000. Roughly what the first episode of the much-reviled Life From Planet Earth pulled in.
[interestingly, there’s already a counter-narrative being put out there claiming that the show still pulled in viewers, only they were watching on iTunes and other digital platforms. Trouble there is, that doesn’t explain why they tuned in initially on their old-fashioned television sets – it’s not like iTunes suddenly came on-line during week 6]
While the ratings have been poor, it’s the reason behind these crap ratings that’s of real interest. This wasn’t a show people never checked out, or a show they never had a decent chance to see: it was well advertised, on in an easy-to-find timeslot, given plenty of media coverage and well supported (with ads, repeat showings, a consistent timeslot and so on) throughout its run. The only serious, plausible explanation for why the show failed to hold an audience is that, for the majority of viewers, it simply wasn’t any damn good.
The odd thing there is, Angry Boys isn’t all that different from writer / director / musician / star Chris Lilley’s previous (and extremely successful) series Summer Heights High and We Can Be Heroes. Just go read any of the reviews that ran in The Age’s Green Guide – actually don’t bother, we’ll do it for you.
“Now we’re getting somewhere. It took a while to gain momentum but episode four of Chris Lilley’s Angry Boys is traction city with the introduction of Lilley’s latest incarnation, ruthless Japanese skateboard mum Jen Okazaki… Angry Boys is emerging as a beautifully realised series that might rival Summer Heights High. This episode has instant classic written all over it. If you’re not hooked already you don’t stand a chance” – Larissa Dubecki, May 26
“There’s no doubting Lilley’s skills – S.mouse’s newly penned song is brilliantly painful” – Paul Kalina, June 2
“For this viewer, Gran is the standout creation of Lilley’s much-discussed show which, like Offspring, is slowly but surely heading towards what promises to be a memorable finale” – Paul Kalina, July 7
(that “memorable finale”, by the way, was the most obviously tacked-on piece of garbage seen on television since the ending to ALF where the alien-hunting taskforce finally grabbed ALF and took him away to be dissected [not a made-up ending]. In defiance of every single scene that had come before, erasing any actual drama or emotion created by the series simply for the sake of a totally unearned feel-good moment, Nathan suddenly regains his hearing just in time to see the rest of the cast turn up for his farewell party. How did they get the invitations? Why would they even bother? Couldn’t Lilley have figured out a way to get his happy ending by actually building up to it? STOP ASKING QUESTIONS AND CRY)
Ahem. So what’s missing from these reviews? Phrases like “Lilley has lost his way”, “A marked departure from his earlier work”, “bound to disappoint long-time fans” and so on. These people (and plenty others – these were just the reviews handy at the time of writing) clearly didn’t see Angry Boys as being all that different from Lilley’s other shows. Which somewhat blunts the increasingly common argument that somehow with Angry Boys the wheels suddenly fell off.
Yes, Angry Boys was extremely slow-paced, with next to no story development for most of its 12 episode run, but Summer Heights High was just as plodding during its’ middle stretch – out of eight episodes, there’s at least two that add nothing to the overarching storylines. That’s hardly surprising, as the show expanded from six episodes to eight during filming – presumably Lilley’s fondness for improvising scenes in front of the camera meant they had enough material to extend the series’ run (and still have hours and hours of deleted scenes left over for the DVD – which is also the case with Angry Boys).
Yes, Angry Boys verged on the racist and the homophobic; so did his earlier series. Islander teen Jonah was a racist cartoon until Lilley started getting serious towards the end of SHH; Ricky Wong was a stereotypical nerdy Asian who had no problem getting around on stage in blackface. Daniel & Nathan’s constant use of the term “fag” was a staple of their appearances back in We Can Be Heroes too; nice to see Lilley being consistent in their characterisation… such as it was.
Yes, Angry Boys was told in the same mockumentary style that meant he didn’t have to write storylines, and Angry Boys had Lilley doing all the characters and barely giving anyone else a line, and Angry Boys had Lilley writing a bunch of “offensive” songs, and Angry Boys shoe-horned in supposedly touching moments and a mawkish ending, and Angry Boys had the same boys choir opening music (written by Lilley again), and… you get the idea.
[While we’re here, normally Lilley’s use of racist language is brushed off as either “just a joke” or a reflection of the way teens actually talk. As jokes go, it stopped being funny a long time ago. Gran’s use of racist language early in the series worked because clearly the joke was that she was saying the (now) unsayable; what are we supposed to think now that the series is over and racist Gran turned out to be the character shown in the most loving and sympathetic light?
The kind of “joke” Lilley is supposedly going for, where we’re meant to laugh at the person making the racist / homophobic comments, only works if you don’t then try to make us feel sympathy for your racist / homophobic characters. Daniel constantly uses the word “fag” as an insult; by series end we’re supposed to see Daniel as a troubled, sensitive teen unable to articulate what he wants to say. He doesn’t grow from one state to the other though; rather, our view of him is meant to deepen. It turns out it’s okay for him to say “fag” all the time – the same way it was fine for Jonah to call red-haired kids “rangas”, the same way it’s okay for Gran to call black kids "Coco Pops” – because they’re really good people at heart. Or at least, Lilley thinks they’re good at heart, hence all the sad music and touching “dramatic” scenes and trips out to the tree where Daniel & Nathan’s dad died so Daniel can say “we’re not like men yet, we’re still like kids”. Aww. And then Nathan pisses on the tree, just to make sure we don’t take the super-serious scene he just showed us seriously. Make up your mind already.]
So – to get back on track here – why did audiences turn their backs on Angry Boys if it was basically just more of the same… oh wait, now we get it.
Time for a history lesson. We Can Be Heroes screened in July 2005, after a relatively long period of next to no Australian comedy on our televisions. Let Loose Live had tanked after two episodes barely a month earlier, Kath & Kim were on a break (that’s where the money for We Can Be Heroes came from), The Panel was six years old and worn out, Spicks & Specks was brand new and the idea of a regular Wednesday night comedy timeslot on the ABC was in its infancy. To some extent, Chris Lilley was the only game in town.
That’s not to say audiences were desperate for local laughs – clearly they weren’t desperate enough for Let Loose Live. But with Kath & Kim on the downwards slope and no-one else around, Lilley was in the right place at the right time. He’d been doing “cringe comedy” with his Mr G character on sketch show Big Bite, and with The (UK) Office at the height of its fame here a local version was a pretty safe bet – especially once (as rumour has it) the ABC asked Lilley to incorporate a David Brent-esque character into the mix.
Come 2008 and Summer Heights High had a secret weapon on its side: it was set entirely at a high school. In Australian society, you’re either about to go to high school, are at high school, have just left high school or – after a few years – have kids that fall into one of those categories. It’s a massive audience, and when one of the things you’re really good at is capturing the voices, mannerisms, and social nuances of people… well, it’s hardly surprising that the realism of SHH (in contrast to the comedy, which on one occasion involved Mr G putting excrement in a classroom in the hope a disabled student would be blamed) was often cited as its main draw.
Come 2011, and Lilley was back with a show without a clear connection to the audience. It was about “angry boys”, but that was so vague it didn’t work as a hook. He didn’t have the realism card to play either: S.mouse was a cartoon, surfer Blake wasn’t relevant to anyone in a city or inland, Jen Okazaki wasn’t human. All they had to offer were jokes, and that had never been Lilley’s strong suit.
Worse, come 2011 Lilley was a man out of time. In recent years comedy has swung away from the Ricky Gervais / Office style of “cringe comedy” and back towards, well, making people laugh. Hamish & Andy are the current kings of Australian comedy; awkward pauses and racist comments aren’t exactly staples of their work. Comedy has moved on, and it’s moved away from what Lilley does.
This won’t kill his career. The Angry Boys DVD is reportedly selling well, and the show is rating okay in the UK. But you’d have to think this kind of audience-shedding failure would give him pause before his next series. As well it should.
For 26 episodes over three series Chris Lilley has churned out the exact same show. He writes it, he produces it, he plays all the main roles in it, he writes the music for it. And that show is built around the exact same joke: his characters are arrogant morons who think they’re great and treat everyone around them like dirt. Then somewhere along the line, Lilley decides to show their sensitive side to wring some pathos out of the bad situation they’ve put themselves in through (to one extent or another) the same blatant stupidity we were supposed to be laughing at. We get it. We’ve heard it all before. We’ve stopped laughing. Come back with something new, or don’t come back at all.