That a TV show where a man in his thirties dresses in drag and plays a teenage girl can be not only confusingly heartfelt but seem utterly realistic is a strange prospect. And yet Australian comedian Chris Lilley’s genius six-part mockumentary series Summer Heights High (2007) somehow manages to do just that.
Pretending to be a documentary shot over a single term at an Australian state school, the show sees Lilley play, as well as a shallow teenage girl, a troubled Tongan teenage boy and an egoistic drama teacher, supported by a cast comprised entirely of non-actors. While aired on BBC Three in 2008 and considered a cult-classic by some, Lilley fails to be the household name that he has become in Australia in the UK.
Perhaps this is because the show is just far too provocative to become mainstream. For indeed, the characters are outrageous- take Mr G, who straight-facedly explains to the camera the concept of his musical ‘Tsunanarama’, a depiction of the Tsunami tragedy set to the music of Bananarama- and the show takes a risky approach to social issues such as race and class by having its characters be casually racist, for example. The result is that the viewer can often feel incredibly uncomfortable, and Lilley’s work (particularly his later shows) has consequently attracted wider debate about the nature of satire as a form, and whether or not characters with noxious views are acceptable in its name.
For the show is essentially an airing of society’s failings and embedded prejudices, with the school acting as a microcosm.
But if the satirist’s job is to tell us a society how we behave, warts and all, then Lilley certainly achieves this. For the show, with its character’s casual prejudices, is essentially an airing of society’s failings and embedded prejudices, with the school acting as a microcosm.
Furthermore, the teenage characters, Jonah and Ja’mie- ‘I used to be Jamie, but I added the apostrophe in Year Eight’- in particular are very obviously products of society, exposing the pressures on young people to be tough, or cool, or conventionally attractive, and the inordinate amount of energy that is often spent on trying to be so. It is for this reason you can’t completely hate the characters despite their frequent monstrosity.
In fact, it is even impossible not to feel sympathy for the characters at some moments of extreme pathos in the show. Lilley is an expert at seamlessly moving between shocking humour and genuine heartfelt emotion: I challenge anyone not to be choked up by practically illiterate and anti-authority Jonah finally reading his story aloud and thanking his teacher in the final episode, returning to Summer Heights High for the final time after having been expelled. Indeed, delusional Jonah and the various hardships he experiences perhaps provides the emotional core of the show. That such emotional investment is possible is seemingly because of the way that Lilley does so realistically seem to completely become his characters. Many shows of a similar genre exploit the discrepancy between the actor and the character for laughs, but with Lilley it is easy to genuinely forget that he is a middle-aged man, which gives the show a distinctive psychological texture.
Even if not to your taste in humour (although it is widely and critically acknowledged as being very funny), Summer Heights High remains a unique and interesting show; if nothing else, through its simultaneously shocking yet undeniably realistic tone, it forces the audience to be confronted with what we as a society are responsible for.