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.
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.
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.