Ja’mie and the Magic Torch

Well, that sure showed everyone who said Chris Lilley was a one trick pony. Why, there had to be at least three separate jokes on display in the first episode of Ja’mie: Private School Girl: Ja’mie’s a bitch, Ja’mie dances in a sexually explicit fashion in front of the school, Ja’mie talks about tits a lot… wait, is that part of her being a bitch? We were laughing too hard to tell. Oh ho ho. Ho ho. Cough.

It’s been obvious since at least Summer Heights High that Lilley seems to think being accurate is at least as important as being funny, only not in the way that comedians usually prize accuracy – you know, that whole “it’s funny because it’s true” deal. Lilley’s commitment to accuracy isn’t really connected to the comedy (or “comedy”) in his shows at this point. Did anyone watching the slutty dancing at the school assembly scene think “wow, that’s exactly how teenage private school girls are in 2013”? Thought not.

And yet, for much of Ja’mie Lilley’s clearly trying to serve up a somewhat accurate look at teenage girl behaviour. Well, either that or he’s doing a whole lot of weird shit for no reason: why else have endless “love you!” “love you too!” exchanges every time the girls say goodbye? As for the loads and loads and loads of swearing plus Ja’mie insulting pretty much everyone around her who’s not part of her inner circle… yeah, that could go either way.

For all the praise heaped on Lilley over the years there hasn’t been a whole lot of attention paid to the fact that his actual sense of humour is pretty darn stunted. Swearing is funny; unselfconsciously crap public performances are funny; being a two-faced bitch is funny; that’s pretty much it. To give him the benefit of the doubt – this is only episode one of six – maybe we’ll get some kind of critique of private schools themselves and the power structures they foster. Just kidding: has Lilley ever shown any interest in anything beyond his own performance?

But at least Lilley’s only focusing on one character here, right? Surely that’s got to force him to inject some depth into his characterisation, even if he is playing his shallowest, most two dimensional character and this is the guy who invested S.Mouse? Aw hell no: it just means more scenes where he surrounds himself with actual teenage girls and they all babble away about how hot Ja’mie’s looking and how she’s certain to be head of the school and how they’re going to build a freakin’ statue of her, she’s just that amazing.

[that whole statue thing is so clearly over-the-top we actually thought that here at least we had something Ja’mie wasn’t going to get, some prize kept out of her reach that would result in some kind of public meltdown – slash – comeuppance. But then we remembered the end of Angry Boys, when every single character turned up for the twin’s party despite it making no sense whatsoever. So now we reckon she’ll be told they’re not making a statue of her but in the end they will because… yeah]

The big problem with this Ja’mie-focused approach is that Ja’mie is boring. She’s a shallow, self-obsessed bitch and constantly shouting “grow some tits” isn’t the same as saying something funny. There’s a few minor character moments here – she has an enemy, she likes a boy, she has a family that’s clearly heading for a breakup and considering the way she cracks onto her dad that’s not such a bad thing – but none of that is particularly well developed at this stage.

So what’s supposed to be funny here? Maybe it’s possible that we’re meant to think “oh, the joke is that this bitchy teenage girl who thinks she’s hot is being played by a forty year old man”, but that’s not a reading the show supports in any way. Ja’mie is surrounded by characters who act like she actually is hot. Her teachers aren’t constantly saying “oh Derrick, take off that schoolgirls uniform and go back to being the janitor”. We’re meant to think “wow, Chris Lilley is a master of disguise”, not “gee, guess some people still think drag acts are funny in 2013”.

Ja’mie is a monster, which is good for comedy in general but terrible for Lilley’s style of comedy (or “comedy”, or “wasting our time”). Over the course of his three previous series he’s proven himself totally incapable of treating his characters as anything but very special petals who deserve at best happy endings and at worst sad endings of the “awww, that’s so sad” variety (Jonah being shipped back home, Gran having Alzheimer’s). It’d be nice to think Ja’mie is going to end with Ja’mie plunged into poverty and / or a vat of acid, but we’re not getting our hopes up.

What we’re left with is a show that feels surprisingly desperate. Lilley’s returned to the setting of his biggest triumph with his most popular character and he’s clearly trying so hard to get the teen girl stuff down pat so people will say – like they did with Summer Heights High – that he’s really nailed what kids today are like. But he’s got no idea how to extract comedy from any of that, so we’re left watching a foul-mouthed bitchy teenager swan around treating everyone like shit for half an hour. Only she’s played by a middle-aged man and all the talk about tits is kind of creeping us out.

Maybe things will happen over the next few weeks. Maybe Lilley will figure out a way to make Ja’mie a convincingly authentic teenage girl who can be funny without doing the usual “Chris Lilley thinks this shit is hilarious” stuff (you know, bad songs, bad public performances, blatant racism, the usual). Or maybe Lilley is so in love with Ja’mie that she’ll just be a bitch for four episodes, suffer a minor setback in episode five, then overcome it (or just act like she has in defiance of all logic) and come out a winner by episode six.

Yeah, that sounds about right.

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  • Billy C says:

    Not since Hills Street Blues have so many characters talked at the same time. I had no idea what anyone was saying for a while. It was just noise.
    I lasted 10 minutes, nothing had happened so I switched it off. It will probably rate but so does Mrs Browns Boys and this is not a million miles from that.

  • Todd Baker says:

    Brilliantly put. You summed up my thoughts on this rubbish perfectly.

  • BetamaxRevivalCrew says:

    I watched it just to see how awful it was, and Christ, was it awful. When they were talking about some award and they were saying that Ja’mie was definitely going to get it, you can already see how before the award she’s going to act like she’s going to win but instead it’s going to go to someone she hates (probably that rural kid, or the one of the Asian girls that she hilariously made fun of) then she’s going to throw a tantrum and it’s going to be hilarious because “hey look, Chris Lilley is playing an entitled bitch”.

    How anyone can find this shit funny I have no idea.

  • urinal cake says:

    Checking out the positive reaction I think Lilley is coasting on observational comedy (albeit an exaggerated form of it) that the ‘youth’ and these ‘women’ recognise. The problem for the rest of us the characters arcs and the situations (which are telegraphed to hell) aren’t really funny or interesting enough to pay attention.

  • 13 schoolyards says:

    That seemed to be a big part of Summer Heights High’s appeal too – school is a fairly universal experience and one that a lot of people go through twice, once as a student than again as a parent. So the setting alone appeals to a lot of people and Lilley’s reasonably good at getting the details right… just not at making them funny.

  • Moribunderast says:

    I remember when it aired and I decried Summer Heights High, some friends of mine would retort with “But it’s just like High School!” and I’d just say, “Yeah, and I HATED High School!”

    Is that really the benchmark for Australian comedy now? An authentic setting? I might have to pop down to my local Centrelink office with a camera for a few hours. It may be dull and repetitive but there’s bound to be at least one awful person swearing at the staff. I’ll just focus 90% of the series on him and call it a mockumentary. ABC, give me money!

  • er says:

    Looking forward to your thoughts on 7 Days Later.

  • urinal cake says:

    That’s to be expected. Most people want television to affirm their lives and to not to uncomfortably question it (or to do so with distance and irony). There are much worse shows that have done this Friends, Scrubs, HIMYM, Modern Family etc. And few shows that get the cynicism right- Seinfeld, The Office, Peep Show etc.

  • Tony Coca-Cola says:

    THAT took seven days?

  • 13 schoolyards says:

    We’re going to hold off on reviewing it for another week, just to give it time to settle in a little. It’s probably safe to say that if we’d thought it was awesome, we wouldn’t be waiting to tell you about it.

  • Billy C says:

    I think 7 days to cast, rehearse, organise location, edit, grade, mix etc is fair enough. Add in the 4 to 5 minutes spent on the script and 7 days is not unreasonable. What a poor idea for a series why does anyone want to see something that’s made in a short period of time. Does the fact that something is rushed make it better? Classic example of transmedia funding box ticking. Interactivity blah blah.

  • Rutegar says:

    hullo websnarks,

    completely off topic, but I don’t care.

    if you haven’t already discovered it, there is an absolute gem of a Canadian TV show called SLINGS AND ARROWS which is definitely worth chasing down on DVD.

    why, oh why, can we not do the like down here ?

  • Tony Coca-Cola says:

    Exactly right. What’s the appeal of… it all?