The first step in reviewing something is to successfully identify what it is. Start complaining that Zoolander isn’t taking seriously the plight of child labourers in the fashion industry and people probably aren’t going to bother with whatever else you have to say. So it’s tempting to suggest that when reviewers talk about how Chris Lilley’s latest series Angry Boys ‘had flashes of artistic brilliance, but I couldn’t help but feel disappointed that there weren’t more laughs’ or write that ‘Chris Lilley’s Angry Boys is bold, aggressive, unafraid to trample on some very shaky ground. But on the basis of last night’s opening episode, it’s hard to conclude that it’s especially funny’, they might want to look up the dictionary definition of ‘comedy’. If a comedy isn’t funny, then it’s a failure, right?
Of course, when it comes to Chris Lilley that isn’t quite the end of the story. Though it might be if you’re approaching Angry Boys expecting to laugh loud and often. In his last series Summer Heights High it took seven episodes for Jonah to go from high-school prankster to heart-wrenchingly adrift youth: here the Sims twins Nathan & Daniel (Lilley) gear-shift from comedy to angst by the end of episode one. The foul mouthed, racist prison guard Gran (Lilley) displays a soft heart in episode two, and future episodes reveal that the similarly offensive rapper S.mouse, washed-up surf bum Blake Oakfield and monstrous stage mother Jen Okazaki (all played by Lilley) all have warmer, more human depths underneath their blunt exteriors.
What’s wrong with that? Plenty of truly classic comedies have featured characters with more than a hint of pathos about them. But when overweight, sleazy, middle-aged office manager David Brent (Ricky Gervais) begged for his job in The Office (UK), it was a last-minute twist in a long-running series, much like the way Lilley handled the death of Pat Mullins in We Can Be Heroes – a brief, sudden shift that worked to shock us into realising these comedy characters were real (okay, ‘real’) people. By trying to sustain that drama over weeks or months in Angry Boys, Lilley has set himself a much more difficult task.
Contrary to the accepted wisdom that hails him as a master of disguise and a keen-eyed observer of character, Lilley has become less subtle with each series. In Lilley’s first solo effort We Can Be Heroes, Phil Olivetti was able to be both funny and pathetic at the same time. In contrast, the current crop are all two-stage characters from the same mould, comedy monsters who are revealed to have hearts of gold. Once the reveal happens, the comedy fades away: Daniel and Nathan’s acting out becomes an obvious cry for help, Gran’s bizarre behaviour is how she clumsily shows she cares, S.mouse is struggling to find his identity, and so on.
The actual comedy is increasingly throwaway, the same old song parodies and (literal) poo jokes (in Summer Heights High, Mr G put excrement on the floor of the special needs classroom to try and get them kicked out of his play; here, Nathan shits on a police car in imitation of one of S.mouse’s songs). But where in Summer Heights High the comedy was still largely the point of the show, in Angry Boys it’s clear that Lilley’s sights are set a whole lot higher.
The big success story of Summer Heights High was its only original character, Islander student Jonah. Where Lilley’s efforts to add depth to earlier creations Mr G and Ja’ime never really worked – Ja’ime’s cry of ‘state schools rock’ as she drove away in the final episode was a blunt repudiation of everything the character had said and done over 16 episodes of television – Jonah’s increasingly desperate plight as he struggled in a school system ill-equipped to help him earned Lilley plaudits.
So it’s not completely surprising that he’s decided to base an entire twelve-part, six-hour series around the drama that comes from troubled people trapped in dead-end situations. This shift is why reviewers are struggling with Angry Boys. It looks like a comedy on the surface – Lilley is still playing dress-ups, after all – but right from the first episode it’s obvious that this show doesn’t really want to get laughs. It’s not a failed comedy like, say, Ben Elton’s Live From Planet Earth, which was packed with jokes that didn’t work; it’s a show that often isn’t even trying to be funny.
As a comedy then, it has to be seen as a failure. But if it’s not trying to be a comedy, does it succeed as a drama? Well, not really. There’s not much forward momentum to the storylines, for one thing. It’s largely a character study, but characters like S.mouse aren’t all that realistic. Taken together, the cast as a whole just isn’t deep or complex enough to require six hours of in-depth exploration.
What’s really interesting about Angry Boys slide into drama is Lilley’s conviction that viewers will go beyond the superficial ‘he’s a man in a dress / blackface / whatever’ and connect with his performance on a purely dramatic level. It’s a big ask, but if Lilley is able to convince viewers to take him seriously playing all the major roles in an increasingly humour-free character-based drama, he’ll have to be considered one of the acting titans of our age.
If not … well, at least people won’t be laughing at him.
Anthony Morris’s essay ‘“A Bad Habit”: Chris Lilley and How We Rate Comedy’ appeared in Kill Your Darlings Issue 3. Anthony is DVD Editor at The Big Issue.