Has there ever been a returning television show so committed to failing to capture the imagination of Australians than Tractor Monkeys? Geez, don’t ask us, we couldn’t give a shit about a show that thinks giving Peter Helliar a venue for telling a story about how he once went to sleep in a tent wearing sunglasses is a worthwhile use of resources during the decline of Western Civilisation. Oh look, Adam Zwar. This episode’s a keeper.
C’mon, for fuck’s sake: when you’re halfway through your second series and Merrick “this is as good as it’s ever going to get” Watts is STILL making “women on surfboards? what’s next – women drivers?” jokes, give up. If all you can do with your chosen format of showing old clips from the ABC’s archives is make jokes about how people in the old days didn’t hold the same views we do today, you’re just wasting everybody’s time. Yeah, it was one joke: one too many.
And so it goes on. “Aussies love sport: that’s because we’re good at it.” In contrast to making panel shows. Though if you wanted a crash course in “shit, we better laugh at that guy’s jokes, otherwise we’ll never get our heads on television”, the line-up on this episode can’t be beat. Unless you’re Dave O’Neil, then you’re pretty good at laughing at your own jokes – especially that one about Bob Hawke being hit in the face with a cricket ball: “No wonder he went on to make some bad decisions!” Because Bob Hawke is known for making bad decisions! Oh yes he is! Shut up!
Up next: Gruen Planet. “The Earth Spins: We Don’t” remains the tagline. Still got Julia Gillard in the opening credits too. You’d think it’d be difficult to find something new to hate about this show, but here goes: ever noticed the way it now positions itself as the one voice of sanity in a world controlled by spin? And then they-
-sorry, just got distracted by them showing an ad for “my first rifle”, followed by Wil Anderson deadpanning “my first bodybag sold separately”. Yeah, because guns have no other use than shooting other people. Christ, we’re hardly pro-guns around here but guns are legal in some parts of the world – including Australia (where at least one of us had cousins running around shooting rabbits before they were teenagers) – and a commercial advertising the fact that if you want to train your kids to shoot maybe you might buy them a gun specially designed for kids is just… whatever. Make a better joke or leave it out.
Of course, we know why they put it in: to pander to the “socially aware” audience that thinks Gruen is sticking it to the evil forces of right-wing oppression. Cue a “good” commercial – we’re all aware that Gruen subtly divide the ads they show into ones we’re meant to laugh at dismissively and ones we’re meant to admire, totally undermining the show’s supposedly cynical take on the world of advertising, right? – about gay marriage. Here’s something fun to do: try and imagine an episode of Gruen where they laughed at a shit ad promoting gay marriage and were impressed by a great ad for pre-teen gun use. Let us know how you go. We’ll be over here thinking about how across large swathes of the globe you could make a version of Gruen where everyone was appalled by Australian commercials featuring women with their heads uncovered.
Our point being, for a show happy to talk itself up as cutting through the world of spin, they’re extremely happy to put their own spin on things. When one of the panellists says about an anti gay marriage ad “the ad says ‘they’re asking me to choose between my beliefs and my job’ – fuck you, do your job!”, everyone is shown laughing and we cut to the audience applauding. Which they probably wouldn’t do if someone said the exact same thing about, say, an ad featuring someone in the navy complaining about having to turn back refugee boats.
“Is there a point where you’re insulting everyone’s intelligence?” Anderson asks about the anti gay marriage commercials, thus providing us with the best straight line ever. Remember “The Earth Spins: We Don’t”? Time to file that under “lying sack of shit”. They’re not tackling advertising from a spin-free perspective: they come at advertising from a direction where some causes and issues are worthwhile and deserve to be taken seriously, and some are not. Sure, we all do that all the time and it’s not like we don’t mostly agree with the tack they take: still, last time we checked, most of us don’t go around claiming “The Earth Spins: We Don’t”.
Oh Ja’mie: Private School Girl. “It’s so big” “It’s kinda chunky” “It’s so much pinker than I thought it’d be”. Why not tell us what you really think of that African guy’s dick? Week two and the jokes remain the same: Ja’mie’s a bitch. We get it. She flirts with guys, treats other girls like shit and keeps on talking about her tits. Four more weeks of this, you guys. “FML my life for having small tits, it suuuuucks”. Is having Chris Lilley constantly talking about his small tits starting to creep anyone else out? Like really starting to seriously seem kind of off-putting and unsettling and suggestive of some kind of underlying pathology rather than, you know… “comedy”?
Plus it looks like Lilley has absolutely no idea how to mine his impression of a bitchy teen girl for comedy. C’mon, dancing as badly as Ja’mie does in her dance class would open her up to a world of mocking in a real school situation, but because Lilley only thinks three things are funny (bad dancing being one of them) we get two close-ups of Ja’mie squeezing her boobs because, uh… “comedy”?
And then she sings a crap song, which is once again one of the three things Chris Lilley finds funny. Hey what about finding something funny in the behaviour of a teenage girl that a): is something a high-flying private school teen girl might actually do, and b): isn’t just her being a bitch to everyone else? For a show basically marketed entirely to teenage girls (and maybe the parents of teenage girls), isn’t it kind of insulting that Australia’s supposed master of disguise can’t see any deeper into his teenage girl character than hey, she’s a total bitch?
Unless you’re watching Ja’mie: Private School Girl because you think Ja’mie is awesome and a total role model, this show just doesn’t work. The comedy doesn’t come from Ja’mie being a realistic high school girl, and Lilley’s performance as a realistic high school girl isn’t funny. “It’s so true-to-life” say the fans. So why not just make a documentary? And if it’s not true-to-life – if Ja’mie is a cartoony exaggeration – then why is she set in a totally realistic setting? And if the comedy comes from the tension between the two approaches – she’s a cartoon in a real-world setting – what’s the point of all the shithouse dancing?
The first episode set up a couple of foils for Ja’mie that, if given a lot more air time than Chris Lilley was ever likely to give anyone on-screen who isn’t Chris Lilley, could have provided enough variety and conflict to generate some actual comedy. But week two skipped over all of them in favour of a bunch more lines about tits and dicks with some bad dancing mixed in. Which just throws the focus back on Lilley’s performance. Which, going by past outings, is just the way he likes it.
The big problem with this series focusing entirely on Ja’mie is that if we laugh at her too much the character stops working. It’s okay to laugh at her arrogance and self-obsession and cruelty because that doesn’t undermine the basis of the character – she’s an arrogant, self-obsessed, cruel teenager. Anything else though – making mistakes, having authentic interactions with other people, having real challenges, having to actually be good at doing something – and the premise of Ja’mie, as we said, stops working.
So yes, Chris Lilley has made a show that only works if it’s the same note struck over and over and over and over and over and over again. Yay.