Jonah From Tonga episode 1: The Phantom Menace

There’s been a lot of talk online about Jonah From Tonga this past weekend, with all six episodes of the series being made available to view for 48 hours only in Australia on iView and in the UK on the BBC’s iPlayer. As Paul Kalina observed in the Sydney Morning Herald, this sort of thing is now a common strategy, allowing audiences to “binge watch” series and hopefully create a buzz which entices casual views to tune in to the broadcast or catch up afterwards.

This broadcast model also changes the experience of watching TV and therefore how TV should be reviewed. Chris Lilley’s work having been a hot topic on this blog over the years, we here at Australian Tumbleweeds decided we’d review each episode of Jonah From Tonga. But when to do it? After each episode is first broadcast on ABC1, surely? Here’s the problem: we, along with many of you, watched as many episodes as we could during the 48 hour preview period, meaning we watched two or three episodes at once rather than waiting a week in between each one. And in a “binge watch” the distinction between individual episodes, and their problems, starts to blur…especially when, in typical Lilley fashion, Jonah From Tonga is light on plot and structure.

In many ways, binge watching suits Lilley’s work. Unless you instantly hate it so much that you turn off after 5 minutes, you can find yourself watching up to four episodes in one go, blobbing out in your chair as its purposelessness laps over you gently like soft waves. And Jonah From Tonga isn’t a show which requires or demands your absolute concentration, it’s basically a series of scenes in which Jonah and his gang bully other kids in the school and exchange toilet humour-peppered barbs with other characters.

In some ways it’s a more sophisticated Housos, a sitcom with minimal plot about Australians who aren’t white and living in the inner suburbs, but with less slapstick and better-written characters. No, really, we mean that about the characters. After his self-indulgent screen-hogging in Summer Heights High, Angry Boys and Ja’mie: Private School Girl, Lilley actually gives the other characters some meaningful dialogue, even one or two gags. We really weren’t expecting that.

But let’s not get over-excited. Lilley’s still treading an uncomfortable line when it comes to race, gender and sexuality, and not really getting it right. For every half-decent schoolboy dick joke there’s a scene of homophobic, racist or sexist bullying that seems utterly gratuitous, isn’t telling us anything and isn’t funny. Yes, it’s the kind of thing troubled teenage boys do, but so what?

And with Lilley already out there telling us how his characters don’t change but that’s okay, we can be almost certain that even though it looks like Jonah might get his comeuppance later in the series that won’t happen. In Lilley’s shows his main characters never go down, they triumph. And with comedy tending to be funnier when losers lose, that’s bad news for comedy, no matter how good Jonah’s characterisation or toilet humour is.

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