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.