You’d have to think Netflix would be a little disappointed with Lunatics. Not because it’s crap, though it is: being an internet company rather than a broadcast channel, Netflix’s business model is all about getting you to watch rather than quality. They love grabbing up past-their-prime big names because the residual fame is enough to get people to try Netflix, and building a subscriber base is what they’re all about.
But Lunatics is crap in the most boring way possible; it’s just more of the same. Despite some pre-airing controversy aimed at the South African character Jan there’s no blackface, nor are there any amazingly outrageous antics that demand people sign up to check out all the fuss for themselves. Like every other Chris Lilley project since time began, it’s basically the same as every other Chris Lilley project since time began. It’s worse than rubbish: it’s boring.
You might have thought after the seemingly final flame-out of Jonah from Tonga that Lilley would have taken stock of his career and decided to try new things. If you were slightly smarter, you might have thought Lilley would maybe start to segue into doing his greatest hits – finally do that Mr G series, Summer Heights High The Next Generation, anything to make it clear that he was doing it “for the fans”. But why would an artist who’s never once changed his act start now?
So Lunatics is, if anything, building on the direction he was heading with his biggest flop Angry Boys: a group of unrelated characters doing the usual hilarious Chris Lilley stuff (you know, swearing). The six characters are both all-new and business as usual, their storylines are really just set-ups so Lilley can riff in-character, and each episode flows like molasses towards an ending that’s totally arbitrary. These are unpleasant people it’s a chore to spend time with: enjoy the next 360 minutes.
It’s almost impressive the way Lilley keeps managing to make “comedy” while having close to zero interest in developing an actual sense of humour. It’s fart jokes and bum jokes and poo jokes as far as the eye can see, and Netflix seems to have let him unlock the cupboard labelled “cunt” so look forward to that as a punchline as often as possible from multiple characters. A teen girl with giant legs moves into a dorm that has a (for her) head-high ceiling fan; while this amazingly dramatic situation is set up in episode one, don’t expect to be let off the edge of your seat any time soon.
And yet, if that was really all there was to this show, it’d be a lot more interesting – in a psychological study of its creator at least – than it actually is. Lilley will seemingly never work again with another writer and it’s well worth clicking on the “watch credits” button just to see how many times Lilley’s name appears (five? six?), but at least here he’s given almost all of his characters actual sidekicks to work with. They don’t get many lines and they’re all played by non-actors, but simply by having someone close by to react to their shitty antics the whole show edges just that little bit closer to comedy.
Also, there are brief, isolated moments that are funny. Lilley’s career has been ruined by his insistence that he do it all, because simply as a performer he remains a real talent and on the rare occasions here where his characters reveal a humanity that goes beyond being a fucking five star dickhead the show honestly doesn’t suck.
But there are maybe three minutes worth of those moments in the first 70 minutes and it feels like they happen almost by accident because pretty much all of this show feels like it happened by accident. Lunatics is, once again, the latest Chris Lilley show that feels like nothing so much as an excuse for Lilley to play dress-ups and talk about poo and bums while people whose wages he pays tell him he’s a genius.
Comedy is often an area where repetition thrives, but it’s hard to think of another comedian so committed to running the exact same joke into the ground on multiple occasions. It’s not even some timeless form of hilarity he’s working into the grave: character-based mockumentaries are over, being “outrageous” and “shocking” is old news, and everything else he has to offer most people outgrew by the time they were fifteen and stopped sniggering at the word “poo”. Lilley’s style of comedy is so old-fashioned now it’d feel stale even if he was a brand new talent pulling this shit for the very first time.
Of course, there has to be somebody somewhere who still finds Chris Lilley funny, so good news for them; they can simply go and dig up some of the many glowing reviews the early episodes of Angry Boys got and pretend they’re for Lunatics because based on what we’ve seen it is – and we just can’t say it enough – more of the same. That might be slightly embarrassing for the people who wrote those reviews, many of whom still work in the Australian media, but funny is funny; if they were laughing then, why aren’t they laughing now?
Oh right, because things change, tastes evolve, and people stop finding the same joke funny. If only someone could explain that to Chris Lilley.