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Diminishing return? Chris Lilley’s upcoming Ja’mie: Private School Girl to revive one of his most popular creations

Chris Lilley’s just-announced production for the ABC is a 6-part series based on twice-used bitchy teen Ja’mie King. After the slump of Angry Boys, can Lilley overcome the character’s inherent limitations or will it prove to simply be a lunge for renewed commercial success?

I am pro-Chris Lilley, but it became very clear after tonight’s big reveal — that We Can Be Heroes and Summer Heights High favourite Ja’mie King was to return with her own 6-part series — that this wasn’t going to please everyone. Here’s the teaser:

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In spite of the meandering, unfunny Angry Boys, Lilley still has two good-to-great shows under his belt. Summer Heights High remains, to my mind, stealthy in its cleverness, superficial to a point but with some very interesting ideas under the surface. For all the broadness of a character like Mr. G (originated on Seven’s long-forgotten sketch show, Big Bite), Jonah Takalua remains Lilley’s best and most rounded creation, at once a satire of juvenile masculinity and a critique of how such personalities are so often failed by the system (conversely, his relationship with Gumnut Cottage teacher Jan is beautiful).

Where even Mr. G manages to earn some pathos, however, Ja’mie could easily be perceived as an irredeemable character. But I can’t help but appreciate the way Lilley uses her as an all-out assault on how privilege warps minds and behaviour, how a character as toxic and spoiled as Ja’mie is the one who receives all the opportunities in the world; her final scene in Summer Heights High, you may remember, ends on the black-as-night note of Ja’mie sarcastically shouting, “Public schools rock!” from the sun roof of private school friend Brianna’s car, having learned nothing about the world around her. Fortunately, watching her is often brutally funny — I’ll never forget the phrase “sexy AIDS nurse” — even if an argument could easily be made for the concept being a drawn-out one.

Chris Lilley as Ja'mie King.

So while the highly opinionated folk over at comedy blog Australian Tumbleweeds (who I enjoy reading despite their obvious distaste for all things Chris Lilley) are less than overjoyed about this announcement, I remain cautiously optimistic. Here’s some of what they had to say:

Look, if we’d ever considered Lilley to have any artistic ambitions we might have been surprised that he’d decide to make three of his (to date) four television series based around a knockoff of Kylie Mole. But around these parts it’s been clear for a long time now that whatever drives him isn’t exactly a desire to make a profound statement about the human condition. Or even a desire to make people laugh.

And to some extent, I agree. Part of why Angry Boys didn’t work was that it felt like a step back for Lilley, particularly with the return of the Sims twins who were never that series’ strongest characters; now there is an example of driving characters into the ground. And while I don’t quite expect Private School Girl to achieve the emotion of, say, Pat Mullins’ arc in We Can Be Heroes, narrowing his focus to one character could be either exactly what Lilley needs to move forward as a creator and comedian or a choice that will lead to oversaturation and tedium.

But with Lilley halving the number of episodes in the series from Boys‘ 12 to a brisker 6, he has the opportunity to take Ja’mie to a new level; where Summer Heights High thrust Ja’mie into the “povvo” world of public schooling, it never truly took anything away from her. Given that Ja’mie represents the kind of unrelenting favor rich white people are so privy to, truly ripping everything away from her might be exactly what the character needs to develop. And while my friends at Australian Tumbleweeds don’t find much to laugh about in her arch-bitchery (and I must say that labelling Lilley’s schoolgirl drag as creepy seems like a willfully forced criticism), there are many people who will be delighted by the return of her upward-inflected vapidity.

Of course, Lilley could go the safest route — and given Angry Boys‘ ratings collapse, this is more likely than I would hope — and rehash the same ideas and same variations on a theme, thereby feeding his toughest critics (including Wires & Lights’ own Byron Bache). But with the ABC promising a “series of events that will change her life forever”, there is enough hope that the idea needn’t be written off completely. One might not have expected Kath & Kim to have so much mileage after the characters’ inception on the highly underrated Big Girl’s Blouse, but their ABC tenure proved frequently rewarding (let’s just pretend that everything after their move to Seven never happened, though).

For those of us who are excited and hope that Lilley or at least his producers have learned something from their last go round, it’s time to relive some of Ja’mie’s best moments and get ready to count down — it’ll hit the ABC sometime before the end of the year.

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    mikeb
    Posted September 13, 2013 at 11:38 am | Permalink

    Lilley tried something different with Angry Boys and viewers who rightly expected (after the promos) a SHH type comedy were disappointed. It took me a 2nd viewing to appreciate what he’d done with AB and how good it actually was. Remains to be seen if this new series goes back to SHH in-your-face humour, or tries something a bit more meaningful like AB. I hope for the latter as SHH type jokes can only be flogged so far.

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