This is a big weekend for new television, with the launch of Steven Soderbergh’s period medical drama “The Knick” on Cinemax this evening and the arrival of fantasy epic “Outlander” on Starz on Saturday night. You could be forgiven for not knowing about, much less making room on your DVR for a third series, HBO’s “Jonah From Tonga,” which comes to the United States after an airing in Australia, the homeland of its creator, comedian Chris Lilley.
“Jonah From Tonga” is the worst of the three shows by any measure: It looks cheap, it is poorly paced and Lilley appears to have only one or two jokes at hand. But it is also fascinating for what it says about the way we talk about race and television. The series features Lilley in skin-darkening makeup playing the title character, a priapic 14-year-old whose despairing parents have shipped him first to Tonga and then to Catholic school in Sydney.
HBO, in announcing the series’ premiere date, described Jonah as “one of [Lilley's] groundbreaking characters.” But it is not clear what ground, precisely, Lilley is breaking.
There is absolutely nothing new about the practice of white actors darkening their skin to portray non-white characters, what Ralph Ellison called “counterfeits” in his 1953 essay “Twentieth-Century Fiction and the Black Mask of Humanity.”
“The minstrel show has been ubiquitous, cultural common coin,” wrote the historian Eric Lott in his book “Love and Theft.” “It has been so central to the lives of North Americans that we are hardly aware of its extraordinary influence. Minstrel troupes entertained presidents (including Lincoln)…Figures such as Mark Twain, Walt Whitman, and Bayard Taylor were as attracted to blackface performance as Frederick Douglass and Martin Delany were repelled by it.”
Brownface portrayals of native peoples are hardly new to Australia, either, as a number of the essays in “Australian Plays for the Colonial Stage 1834-1899,” a collection edited by Richard Fotheringham, note. Walter Cooper, in his discussion of “Hazard; or Pearce Dyceton’s Crime,” an 1872 drama, suggests that at that time brownface acts were still a “novelty drawcard” in Australia. Rather than remaining a period curiosity, brownface performances have continued to pop up in Australian movies and reality shows.
The use of blackface or brownface as a technique certainly does not qualify as groundbreaking, but maybe Lilley’s use of it could qualify as a divergence from what Ellison described as “a key figure in a magic rite by which the white American seeks to resolve the dilemma arising between his democratic beliefs and certain anti-democratic practices”? If only.
“Jonah From Tonga” might qualify as a statement of equality if we define equality as the opportunity for people of all races, ages and creeds to behave in a foolish, self-centered manner that displays absolutely no self-awareness. Or maybe we are supposed to sympathize with Jonah’s parents, who seem as unable to corral his behavior and as disgusted by his idiocy as his white teachers? Aiming down when arguing for the brotherhood of man is not exactly a new approach, either.
Neither is the idea that teenage boys are essentially walking sexual organs. The high school hangout comedy “Superbad” or the dark British show “Misfits” about juvenile delinquents who acquire superpowers have far deeper insights into this randiness, as well as into teenagers’ slow-developing sense of responsibility. Listening to Jonah whine “I love you, sir,” or some variation on that nauseating phrase every time he wants to get out of trouble is grating beyond belief.
“Jonah From Tonga” is a perfect example of an impulse that is profoundly adolescent at its core: that it is inherently brave to offend, to put on brownkface makeup because others have eschewed it, to make a virtue out of vice simply because it has been so named.
Sometimes more than social censure is what guides us away from certain practices and behaviors. Sometimes, there are just no ideas to be tilled out of abandoned fields. And it does not exactly require bravery to produce a television show with the auspices and financing of institutions such as the Australia Broadcasting Corp. and HBO, which co-produced the series.
“They’re teenage boys. The decision-making part of their brains isn’t fully developed,” Mr. Joseph (Doug Bowles) explains of his unruly charges at one point in the series. With “Jonah From Tonga,” HBO and Lilley have demonstrated that this sort of delay in the development of taste and judgment is not limited to fictional, sex-crazed 14-year-olds.