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.