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Ja’mie King is dead, long live Ja’mie King: the Private School Girl gets her own show

Chris Lilley’s long-awaited new series Ja’mie: Private School Girl airs this week on ABC1. Lilley’s back in the wig and the school dress, but without the fish-out-of-water premise of Summer Heights High, is Ja’mie anything more than a monster? Laurence Barber and Byron Bache watched the first episode.

Laurence says:

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the return of Ja’mie King in Chris Lilley’s Ja’mie: Private School Girl. While tentatively excited at the prospect, I talked about how Lilley “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,” or in the worst case, “Lilley could go the safest route…and rehash the same ideas and same variations on a theme, thereby feeding his toughest critics”. Unfortunately, based on the first of six episodes, the latter seems to be the case.

Ja’mie is a pure sociopath. She’s racist, sexist, homophobic, classist and various other –ists as well. To an extent this has worked as part of her presence in We Can Be Heroes and Summer Heights High, but Private School Girl removes the one component that made Ja’mie watchable, funny, and tolerable: contrast.

Where Heroes (broadcast in some territories as The Nominees) placed Ja’mie’s delusional egotism against reluctant selflessness (Daniel Sims’ eardrum donation to his deaf twin brother Nathan) and aunt-like underachievement (Pat Mullins’ tragic rolling expedition), Private School Girl focuses solely on Ja’mie and exists entirely within her universe. Where Summer Heights High juxtaposed her intense privilege with the banality of public schooling and gave her various foils, this series elects instead to surround her with fawning sycophants.

It’s one thing to show this in five minute segments, but when it’s twenty six minutes straight of teenage girl babble it’s merely exhausting. Lilley has elected to infuse his script with as much of the modern teen lexicon as possible – ‘legit’, ‘YOLO’, ‘groupie’ – but almost never in a way that feels naturalistic even for parody. He then goes as far to invent a word for Ja’mie herself to “invent” – ‘quiche’, meaning hotter than hot – and uses it so repetitively it fulfils, rather than comments on, what I call the Law of Fetch. Inspired by Mean Girls, the Law of Fetch states that any fake slang term must be either routinely undercut (“Gretchen, stop trying to make fetch happen! It’s not going to happen!”) or at least scarcely used.

It’s tough to say where the series will go from here. The only conflict or threat to the status quo this first episode introduces is a new grade ten boy Mitchell, on a rugby scholarship to the nearby all-male private school, who becomes the object of Ja’mie’s affection. It’s something we’ve essentially seen before in the form of Summer Heights High’s Sebastian (though markedly less creepy here), and her manipulation of her oblivious father so she can throw a party to woo Mitchell is equally shrug-worthy.

With all that said, in a couple of episodes time the show could be totally unrecognisable. But this episode does not instil confidence that it will. A series’ first episode needs to hint at what’s to come, and if this episode and the trailers hint at anything it’s that this series will involve Ja’mie verbally and physically assaulting people at school and parties. Ja’mie’s voiceover intones that what’s to come are events that change her life forever, but such events still aren’t visible on the horizon, and that’s a problem.

Ultimately, without all the contrast and reaction that made her disdain for “povvo” public schools funny, Ja’mie just becomes a repulsive bully. It has become an incredibly lazy comedic device for writers to put offensive things in the mouths of characters (hi Wednesday Night Fever) and assume that the shock value will amuse as much as it provokes. The thing is, we’ve heard all that from Ja’mie before, and the last time we did there was a thematic standpoint from which it could be justified. Surely Lilley could have found a new spin to put on Ja’mie’s often hilariously awful personality.

Here though? It’s just a barrage. The next five episodes will have to provide audiences with a reason to endure Ja’mie demeaning the weight and appearance of others or else they will simply stop watching, much as they did with Angry Boys. Ja’mie’s return is asking a lot of viewers and this first episode will sadly only provide them with an unfunny refraction of everything the character has done before. Ja’mie: Private School Girl falls into all the obvious traps and what results is, thus far, safe, stale, and mediocre.

Byron says:

The Ja’mie of Summer Heights High was capable of complimenting another human being. Like any teenage girl, she knew how to turn it on when she needed to. The Ja’mie of Ja’mie: Private School Girl is an out-and-out monster. She’s a bubbling cesspit of id, completely unconstrained by a super-ego.

There are other sociopaths in the Lilley canon. Summer Heights High‘s Mr G — a character that got his first outing on failed sketch comedy series Big Bite — was an entirely unsympathetic egotist, but he had insecurites. In everything he did, you saw the self-doubt, the utter lack of self-esteem, and you loved him because he was broken. But Ja’mie’s not broken, she’s borderline evil. When Ja’mie’s without her adoring friends, unwitting teachers or subservient parents, she’s still the same one-track bitch. Mr G will be the same guy when he’s sixty. Jonah Takalua will probably grow up to stack shelves at his local Coles. Ja’mie King’s going to grow up to be Janet Albrechtsen.

The only person working with a script seems to be Lilley. The supporting cast are simply improvising with a narrow set of instructions: adore Ja’mie, agree with Ja’mie and display no hint whatsoever that you’re capable of independent thought.

And it isn’t social commentary. We never see the flipside.  Ja’mie dumped her best friend Brianna because she got fat. Brianna’s probably pretty happy with herself and thrilled to be without Ja’mie, but we never see it. Comedy’s about juxtaposition, something even fat-suit and single entendre-obsessed Matt Lucas and David Walliams understand. Lilley’s convinced that if he commits to something enough, someone will laugh eventually.

The challenge was to make Ja’mie human. Based on this first episode, I don’t think it’s going to happen.

On the heels of ABC1′s actually-pretty-good Upper Middle Bogan, and the inconsistently brilliant It’s A Date, Ja’mie: Private School Girl is a major disappointment.

The first episode of Ja’mie: Private School Girl airs Wednesday October 23 at 9pm on ABC1.

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  • 1
    The Pedanticist
    Posted October 23, 2013 at 4:49 pm | Permalink

    I might be the only person in Australia that thinks it, but I find Chris Lilley about as funny as dysentery. “We Can Be Heroes” generated the odd smirk. “Summer Heights High” was got the odd sneer. “Angry Boys” was pretty much unrecognizable as comedy. And now this….

  • 2
    Chris Munn
    Posted October 23, 2013 at 6:59 pm | Permalink

    @ The Pedanticist
    No your not alone I’ve never got Chris Lilley’s work .To me it does not appear as satire but more of a celebration of all that’s wrong with Australia.

  • 3
    TheFamousEccles
    Posted October 23, 2013 at 6:59 pm | Permalink

    @ The Pedanticist,

    Thank goodness, I’m not the only one who would rather have bamboo shoots pushed up their fundament than watch anything to do with Chris Lilley.

  • 4
    TheFamousEccles
    Posted October 23, 2013 at 7:00 pm | Permalink

    “Your comment is awaiting moderation”

    You cant be serious, really?

  • 5
    Byron Bache
    Posted October 23, 2013 at 7:10 pm | Permalink

    TheFamousEccles,

    If it’s your first time commenting on a particular blog, you automatically get moderated. Nothing to do with the content of your comment.

  • 6
    prembrowne
    Posted October 24, 2013 at 8:10 am | Permalink

    I’m going to have to disagree with The Pedanticist #1. I’ve quite enjoyed most things Lilley has done and look forward to this. At least he’s doing something a bit different, and while it hasn’t always hit the mark (eg. Angry Boys), it has always tried to throw a spotlight on what it means to be Australian today and has always generated discussion.
    Also I’m not sure if having dysentery would generate a smirk, from me at least :)

  • 7
    Hamis Hill
    Posted October 24, 2013 at 9:49 am | Permalink

    No possible contrast at all between this character and the private school girls surrounding her?
    So, in consequence, the show’s a dud?
    Very strange prejudices on display.

  • 8
    Liamj
    Posted October 24, 2013 at 10:31 am | Permalink

    Interesting contrast in reactions, maybe those recoiling are still in trauma from their own experiences. Holding sociopaths like Ja’mie up for ridicule is an essential public service, it makes us all safer by letting them know they are transperant and repugnant.

  • 9
    Byron Bache
    Posted October 24, 2013 at 10:41 am | Permalink

    Liamj,

    You know Ja’mie’s a fictional creation, right? Not even Kim Jong Il enjoyed the unequivocal, unquestioning adoration that Ja’mie does from everyone around her. Summer Heights High worked so brilliantly because of its very real supporting characters (especially Doug and Margaret). Ja’mie is one big set-up in search of a punchline, and the punchline’s never going to come — nobody in the world of the show sees Ja’mie for what she is.

    It’s not commentary or satire, it’s just a bitchy girl saying bitchy things.

  • 10
    Laurence Barber
    Posted October 24, 2013 at 11:05 am | Permalink

    Hamis,

    Yes? The only time we’re seeing students who aren’t part of Ja’mie’s inner circle is when she is abusing them and they’re mostly silent. Ja’mie gets the last word. It’s bordering on glorifying her behaviour. I don’t see how prejudice factors into that, it’s simply a constructive critique of the show.

  • 11
    Rob Manning
    Posted October 24, 2013 at 11:43 am | Permalink

    And you guys call me a one track bitch……..take a chill pill yo all…J Me

  • 12
    The Pedanticist
    Posted October 24, 2013 at 12:38 pm | Permalink

    Prembrowne #6 – I guess dysentery being smirkless is kinda the point…

    I admit, humour is a matter of taste… Too my taste, I don’t find Lilley’s satire clever, engaging, witty, smart and most importantly – funny. His characters just seem to run through a checklist of witless behaviour which, as Laurence said, borders on glorifying their behaviour. No doubt there will be a worm that turns at some stage and hubris will lead to a fall. But me? I can’t be arsed waiting…

  • 13
    zut alors
    Posted October 24, 2013 at 2:04 pm | Permalink

    Not one single laugh despite willing it to happen.

    Whilst normally against violence I was hoping the rural boarder would take Ja’mie firmly by the throat and put us all out of our misery.

  • 14
    Serendipity
    Posted October 24, 2013 at 7:59 pm | Permalink

    “And it isn’t social commentary. We never see the flipside.”
    You forget – for those of us who are complete outsiders to this world live the flip side, it’s absofuckinglutely brilliant social commentary and the next six days can’t pass fast enough.

  • 15
    Jennifer Dillon
    Posted October 25, 2013 at 10:25 am | Permalink

    Ja’mie will mature into Janet Albrechtson!! Brilliant, brilliant, brilliant – and so obvious. Why didn’t I see that?
    Jen Dillon

  • 16
    Allie Levine
    Posted October 25, 2013 at 12:57 pm | Permalink

    I was actually dreading this episode, out of fear that it would be too much Angry Boys, not enough We Can Be Heroes. But I found it hilarious – I laughed and cringed, and the entire episode was just reminiscent of high school for me.

    I went to a school just like Hillford and found it as abhorrent then as I still do today; maybe I just love watching the whole thing being displayed in all its gory detail, because I’m still so damaged by my own experience!

  • 17
    warwick fry
    Posted October 25, 2013 at 1:42 pm | Permalink

    Am I missing something, or are the critics? I read this as a brilliant satiric allegory of Australian politics as it (more or less) exists just now! Like … you know … ?

  • 18
    Byron Bache
    Posted October 25, 2013 at 2:02 pm | Permalink

    Warwick,

    I think you’re seeing something that’s not there at all. Even if you accept the premise that Ja’mie is political satire, what is it satirising? It’s a one-sided story with a single central character. Politics always has at least two points of view.

    Not to mention the fact that if Chris Lilley wanted to make a show about state or federal politics, he could and would have.

  • 19
    WelBil
    Posted October 26, 2013 at 11:44 am | Permalink

    Chris Lilley is a very clever mimic and can do teenage girl very well. I’m curious as to how he managed to study them closely enough to do it without getting locked-up.

    That doesn’t make any of it funny. I’m actually a bit disturbed by watching a grown male act like a teenage girl. Why would you? Is it weird, or what?

    Bring back Effie. Mary Coustas had it nailed.

  • 20
    Sandra Kanck
    Posted October 26, 2013 at 5:14 pm | Permalink

    I expect to cringe when I view any of Chris Lilley’s work, as he has the knack of making us feel uncomfortable. I was not expecting to laugh, but I did – right at the beginning when the 4-wheel drive cars arrived and parked in formation outside the school. There’s no doubt Ja’mie is a monster, but that makes a statement about the sort of bullying that can and does occur in our school system. One assumes that Ja’mie will get her comeuppance in ensuing episodes, so I’ll be hanging in there. Gorgeous quote in Byron’s review: “Ja’mie King’s going to grow up to be Janet Albrechtsen”.

  • 21
    Liamj
    Posted October 26, 2013 at 11:11 pm | Permalink

    I expect some comeuppance in last reel but only because dramatic convention demands it. Really ‘she’ is already punished, ridiculous & pathetic, driven by fear & locked in constant striving & fakery. Its a hammed-up object lesson about the manipulative princess(bully)/ syncophants(mob) game, fully intended to be unsettling on several fronts, hopefully having the effect of lowering the occurence of perpetrators & victims in community. Cost: 8c/day; value: priceless, well done ABC, Lilley & cast.

  • 22
    Patrick Brosnan
    Posted October 27, 2013 at 2:22 pm | Permalink

    I completely agree with the critique. If Lilley is attempting to overturn comedic convention then he better have something bloody brilliant in store otherwise we’re left with 26 minutes of unrelenting abuse. If Jamie is going to fall and her victims are too have their revenge then we should get an inkling in the next episode. It’s possible that her grab for the school trophy might provide the hook. A lot of great comedy characters are bullies; Basil Fawlty, Blackadder, David Brent to name a few, but they always fail because of their narcissist impulse.That’s what makes it funny.

  • 23
    returnedman
    Posted October 28, 2013 at 4:14 pm | Permalink

    I loved it. Meta upon meta. Lilley KNOWS the “creepy” factor that will accompany audiences seeing a 38 year old man dressed as a teenage girl, and plays on it to the extreme – continually talking about how “hot” she is, nibbling on her dad’s shoulder in a “flirtatious” manner. The overuse of swearing is also deliberate – besides, most teenagers use that sort of language in an exaggerated manner. I can see he has integrated a lot of upper-class mannerisms as well – Ja’mie exaggeratedly prompting the African boy to say “thank you” after she read him a story … so “South Yah-yah”!

  • 24
    Ben johnson
    Posted October 31, 2013 at 11:35 am | Permalink

    I love everything Chris Lilley does. I’ve been an avid fan from the very beginning. What I don’t get are the people who nitpick and criticise his brilliance. It’s clear that they just don’t get it and that’s ok because it’s not for everyone. It’s not meant to be and intelligent kind of humour. It’s basically just a deserved major pisstake especially of political correctness. In an era when television has become a banal landscape of reality, renovation and cooking shows Chris lilleys brand of humour is always welcome in our house.. Theres hit and miss moments in all comedies, Kath an Kim was the same, it had its die hard fans and it’s naysaying critics.
    As far as I’m concerned f it makes me laugh it’s fantastic

  • 25
    warwick fry
    Posted November 1, 2013 at 10:49 am | Permalink

    Byron,

    Jaime made me laugh because she made me think of Tony Abbott in drag. (and let’s not go where the sycophants are … ).

  • 26
    warwick fry
    Posted November 1, 2013 at 11:21 am | Permalink

    Byron, I may have been technically incorrect in saying Jaime was satire. It is more like clever parody. I have thoughts of my own as to what degree Australian politics might represent more than one point of view. It works well in a High School debating society, but from my point of view it is not working too well in our Australian political system.

    Putting politics aside (for a moment) – satire often works by presenting one side of a point of view in such a way that that point of view is reduced to absurdity. The classic example is Dean Swift’s “Modest Proposal” – that the British government in the 18th (?)Century use the excess population of Ireland to set up Baby Farms and use their flesh, fat, and skin as resources available to the English aristocracy. (Giving a new meaning to ‘kid gloves’ so to speak).

    Unfortunately there are occasional individuals (I have given the essay to read to some North Americans) who have read this kind of thing literally.

    So, given that satire can occasionally be a double edged sword, perhaps we could agree that Jaimie is pretty funny parody of some pretty ugly social phenomena?

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