'Summer Heights High': Class Clown Makes Good
Saturday, November 8, 2008; Page C01
If it weren't for such things as publicity, program listings and, yes, critical reviews, "Summer Heights High" might have been able to sneak up on the national audience and convincingly be viewed as a nonfiction series. The show is such an accurate spoof of a reality-television documentary that viewers could initially have mistaken it for the real thing.
But no, despite what the opening credits say, this is not a documentary shot over a single school term at a large public high school in an apparently small Australian town. It only pretends to be. Chris Lilley, who created the concept, wrote the show and plays the three most prominent parts, proves a wickedly wily parodist. You hardly need to be Australian to recognize its abundance of insight into human foolishness, egomania and nincompoopery.
The show, debuting tomorrow night on HBO, starts slowly -- but builds. Eventually, even farcical characters inspire emotional investment. It's cringe comedy, with suspense growing out of how mortifyingly the three main characters -- a drama teacher, a girl who's transferred from private school and an incorrigible sociopath -- will humiliate themselves.
Mercifully, HBO has imported the series -- which aired in Australia last year -- rather than contriving some sort of American adaptation of it. The accents might render some of the dialogue murky, but high school banalities Down Under have a lot in common with those up in the Northern Hemisphere. Girls chatter endlessly on cellphones, pausing occasionally to shoot phone photos, and boys invest disproportionate energy in trying to seem cool.
Different viewers will have different favorite characters, but this reviewer found himself most involved with the embarrassments and debasements of the drama teacher -- whose name is Greg Gregson but who likes to be called "Mr. G," as if he were beloved and legendary.
In the first chapter, he's just into rehearsals of the school musical, Cole Porter's "Anything Goes." But why should Cole Porter get any more glory? "Anything Goes" goes, and Gregson sets about constructing an original and self-glorifying musical based on the death-by-overdose of a Summer Heights student. Eventually "Annabel Dickson, the Musical" will become "Mr. G, the Musical" and its subtitle, "The Story of a Teacher Who Cared Too Much."
All three main characters are chronically delusional, utterly unaware of their failings and limitations. Ja'mie, the pretentious prep-school student, assembles a kind of clique around herself and drags its members through ridiculous melodramas in which she is always the star. She doesn't seem even to notice how ungainly (as played by Lilley) and grotesque she happens to be, imagining instead that she's the belle of every ball.
The sociopath, a Polynesian student named Jonah, is a living matrix of societal ills -- abusive, bullying, desperate for attention and preternaturally post-adolescent, limiting his graffiti to drawings of male genitalia. He's a fascist, basically, a bane to all the teachers but a comic hero to the gaggle of boys who can't wait to see what malicious mischief he'll commit next.
Gregson and his musical are irresistibly horrible. Self-important to a monumental degree, Gregson puts his bewildered students through excessively rigorous rehearsals and a nearly endless series of temperamental tantrums and hyperbolic hissy fits. One of his roles is to be in charge of evacuation procedure, he explains in narration; his idea of clearing the school is to become hysterical and scare people out of their wits.
He says he likes to stage impromptu drills, too -- as when he runs down a hallway screaming, "There's a pedophile in the school -- get out!"
The show's strong language would earn the series an R rating if it were a theatrical release, so parents can consider whether they want real high school students to see Lilley's version. Actually, real students make up most of the cast; they come across not as amateurish but rather as authentically bored by the emotional exhibitionism that Ja'mie, Jonah and Gregson all have in common -- no matter how fascinating they find themselves.
The show might be Australian, and the school may not look and sound quite the way American schools do, but Lilley's script and performances are rife with recognizable personalities, neuroses and human absurdities. The tone is somewhat similar to that of the Christopher Guest satires ("Waiting for Guffman" especially), and yet Lilley comes across more like an Australian Ricky Gervais.
Most episodes end and begin with "iris-out" and "iris-in" transitions used decades ago in silent movies (the screen shrinks down to a dot -- or expands from one), but "Summer Heights High" is far more new-fangled than it is old-fashioned. It's possessed of a sensibility that seems oddly peculiar to the age: uproarious subtlety.
Summer Heights High (30 minutes) debuts tomorrow night at 10:30 on HBO.