It’s a Whale of a Sale

For one weekend only, the ABC have made available for streaming all six episodes of Chris Lilley’s new series Jonah from Tonga. We’ll be honest: we couldn’t make it all the way through. Here’s why:

‘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.”

And here we were thinking Lilley’s complete and total inability to write characters with more than one dimension was a design fault. Turns out it’s meant to be a feature. Because we all tune into comedy series first and foremost looking for realism, right guys? Guys? Come back, Lilley’s about to say something funny!

”Jonah’s not the brightest kid. He doesn’t think things through. Watching him make the wrong decisions is fascinating,” Lilley explains. ”The show doesn’t have the cues of a normal sitcom, so some people feel uncomfortable because that hits close to home, but that’s cool and what I like about it.”

It’s an old joke, but it’s one that never fails to make us laugh: “my work is so edgy and out there, the haters are freaked out by it”. But Lilley’s right; his work doesn’t have the cues of a normal sitcom. Or a good sitcom. Or a shit sitcom. It doesn’t have any cues at all, because all it has to offer is “and then this happened, and then this happened, and then this happened” 95% of the time.

So imagine our excitement when, ten minutes into the first episode, Lilley had managed to throw out everything that was remotely interesting about Jonah’s first appearance in Summer Heights High – basically, the idea that he was acting out because he had learning difficulties that made him frustrated at school, and the idea that his bad behaviour would have actual consequences – in favour of having him back at yet another high school acting like, to quote every adult authority figure on the show, “a fuckwit”.

The formula re-established, Lilley settles into a rut like he was born to it. Oh look, “ranga” jokes. Jonah stuffing a little kid into a locker. A teacher who swears and is physically aggressive towards Jonah. When exactly is this series set – 1955? At least – and we’ll give him this – the theme music wasn’t the usual children’s choir guff he’s bolted onto the opening of everything else he’s done. But there’s still time to fix that before the episodes reach television.

And why is Jonah such a fuckwit? Because, as we see on Tonga itself, he just is. “I like the idea that people don’t change,” says Lilley, and fair enough. But why does he like the idea that they also have to be unbearable idiots at the same time?

Look, we don’t doubt for a second that Jonah will meet an authority figure he bonds with, just like we don’t doubt his stupidity will eventually have actual consequences and he’ll reveal a side that isn’t 100% fuckwit (or that there’ll be a bunch of shit “offensive” songs and lame stage performances): Lilley’s not so stupid that he can’t at least replicate the Jonah formula from Summer Heights High. But he’s already told that story, and it wasn’t that funny the first time.

We’re going to keep watching Jonah from Tonga, and we’ll be reviewing each episode (to some extent at least) as they go to air. But three hours of this shit in one burst? Let’s leave the last word to the Fairfax journalist who interviewed Lilley:

“Jonah pushes the boundary of comic offensiveness, testing both his teachers’ and the audience’s capacity for his incessant retorts and ludicrous attention-seeking.

And when Fairfax is saying that about you, you know you’re in trouble.

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  • yoyo says:

    My expectations of these shows are so low that when I tuned in, I was actually slightly amused. I realised after 15 minutes that I had been analysing it rather than enjoying it, nodding compliments at the screen as if the show were actually being made by someone like Jonah.

    There is at the very least some form to the show, which is something new to these types of sitcoms. I get the feeling it might’ve been doctored by some american writers, or at least someone who’s read a bunch of american screenwriting books. Some of the observations were not bad, and at least he catches the mannerisms of people like this who really do exist. I think it’s worth pointing out that when he says he doesn’t like characters who change, he’s saying that because there are so many times when you’d expect Jonah to change in the series and it’s surprising that he doesn’t. Having said that, I only saw the first episode and skipped most of the stuff to the last, where I skipped most of that too.

    Anyway, doesn’t feel like a real sitcom as you say. It’s like healthy harold went to a school and filmed a video. Like eventually Chris will do a new character at every school. After this though, he really ought to give the school thing up. It’s weird and creepy to spend so much time around high school kids and it’s a little easy. Chris would be better off creating some new characters and possibly doing something like Ali G did. Say what you want about these sit coms of his, but the guy can act and he does pick up interesting mannerisms. He’s a hell of a lot more interesting than the chaser and a lot of other filth on the abc, but again I guess that’s saying something.

  • 13 schoolyards says:

    That’s what’s so frustrating about Lilley – he’s clearly a talented actor and mimic and a lot of his work on a character level is interesting, but he’s completely rubbish as far as anything long form goes and he shows no signs whatsoever of being willing or able to work with anyone who could improve that side of things.

    “A control freak who refuses to be told anything he doesn’t want to hear” might not sum him up personally, but it certainly goes a long way towards explaining the kinds of shows he creates. And his increasing focus on teens both as characters and as his audience doesn’t really undercut that view either: the more he avoids adults, the more it feels like he’s avoiding any situations where he could be pulled up on his numerous failings.

  • BIlly C says:

    “There‚Äôs a familiar structure to television where the character is a certain way and then they go through a certain experience and they become different” – It’s not just a structure of television it’s a structure of any story. Characters are changed by their experiences because people are changed by their experiences.

  • Urinal Cake says:

    I’d say the humour is stupid and repetitive but the character and story are a huge improvement from Ja’mie. I mean Jonah is still a 1.5 dimension character but he’s a lot more sympathetic and at time endearing than Ja’mie.

    I guess the reason why these characters don’t ‘really’ change is because Lilley wants to milk them for all their worth. And to be fair a lot of over the top characters are the same. Alan Partridge hasn’t really changed except that he’s tried to become a bit more politically correct and a bit more savvy with technology.

  • 13 schoolyards says:

    One of the very few things that was interesting about Summer Heights High was the way Jonah and Ja’mie were the exact same character, only in different circumstances. Ja’mie treated everyone around her like crap, but she was rich and her aggression was “female” (largely verbal and directed towards other students) so she got away with it; Jonah did the same but he was poor and his aggression was “male” (largely physical, directed towards authority) so he didn’t get away with it.

    It could have been interesting – maybe not funny, but interesting – if Lilley had explored how that affected their development; Ja’mie crusing through life with no consequences, Jonah being pulled up by the authorities which is both worse (now he’s in serious trouble) and better (now he knows he has to change). Oh wait, “characters don’t change”. Time for some more dick jokes.

  • Urinal Cake says:

    Yep. I think the other difference is that Ja’mie has a tremendous amount of self belief while Jonah deep down felt like he was shit.

    In the final episode *spoilers* it’s pointed out that because Mr Joseph(?) left and Lazarus House was disbanded Jonah has actually become worse since there is nobody to ‘pull him up’ and now since he’s in a normal class he disrupts everybody instead of just a few people. I guess it’s Lilley’s stand against ‘integrated classrooms’.