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Column: Film and TV

Not so ‘quiche': Chris Lilley’s Ja’mie: Private School Girl

by Anthony Morris , December 10, 20135 Comments

Private School Girl

If we’ve learnt anything from Chris Lilley’s latest series Ja’mie: Private School Girl, it’s that no one in their right mind wants to see Ja’mie topless. Once you look past Ja’mie’s bizarre and frankly creepy on-stage disrobing at the climax of the series (if you even can because Chris Lilley’s head on a teenage girl’s body really was the stuff of nightmares), everything else going on in this series was old news. What, Ja’mie is a racist, self-obsessed horror who insults and manipulates everyone around her in a painfully transparent fashion? Lilley established that back in 2005 with Ja’mie’s appearance in the six-part We Can Be Heroes. And then he did it again in 2008 with her appearance in the eight-part Summer Heights High. Taking another six episodes to revisit this well-worn ground seemed a touch self-indulgent, but when has Lilley ever been anything but?

Lilley makes television where he plays all the main roles then squeezes out the supporting characters until they barely register. The first episode of Ja’mie promised subplots involving Ja’mie’s enemies at school, her relationship with her little sister and her parents’ obviously troubled marriage. By the end of the series all three had been lucky to get a handful of scenes across the entire six episodes; what little screen time they grabbed usually involved standing around while Ja’mie shouted or swore at them. Then again, Lilley prefers to deal with non-professional actors. ‘I prefer just bossing real people around,’ he says, which only reinforces the feeling that Ja’mie is the only ‘real’ character on the series.

Ja’mie’s group of friends were an undifferentiated mass of teen mean girls, a Greek chorus cheering her on. Who could pick that one girl who betrayed Ja’mie out of a line up? The only kind of scenes her parents and teachers were allowed to have were ones where they lectured Ja’mie while she rolled her eyes or swore at them. As for her relationships, one was with a boy whose longest on camera sequence was a montage of moments with Ja’mie right before they broke up and the other was with an African refugee who barely spoke English, whom she treated like a slave.

Ja’mie is a frighteningly self-obsessed character created by someone who seems to share some of her self-obsession. Lilley (who as star, writer, producer and co-director, amongst other credits, is basically a one-man band off-screen as well as on) keeps the focus on her (that is to say, himself) so firmly that even elements you’d expect to be central to a comedy – such as the comedy – often felt like an afterthought. Every show Lilley has done has featured the same elements: total self-obsession (check); dubious comedy songs (check); terrible stage performances (check); racism played for laughs (check). Large chunks of this series might as well have featured Ricky Wong. Or Mr G. Or S.mouse.

For a show that was often lauded for its documentary-like insight into teenage girls (Lilley himself describes it as such, saying, ‘To me, it’s really funny that my character is in a real environment and you think it’s a real documentary’), large stretches of the series seemed surprisingly unrealistic. Seriously, in the final episode she makes an on-stage rant about how the school has ripped her off and the principal comes on stage to stop her from talking…and then he promptly gives her back the mic so she can sing a school song.

Ja’mie never went to class. She wasn’t interested in clothes or trends or hobbies. In fact, for someone so self-obsessed she had no internal life at all. In an earlier look at Lilley’s Angry Boys I suggested that 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.

With Ja’mie, Lilley didn’t even bother with the heart of gold.

Chris Lilley’s career isn’t finished yet – there has already been a handful of promos for his next series early in 2014 – but how much longer can he go on playing characters half his age? With his next series based around Summer Heights High’s wayward student Jonah, he’ll once again be a man in his forties playing a teenager. Creatively he’s been repeating himself since day one, so it seems plausible to suggest that he’s been able to get away with it in large part by drawing in a new audience of teenagers each time. We Can Be Heroes aired in 2005; his current crop of teenage fans would have been in early primary school when Ja’mie first appeared. If Lilley’s going to keep those viewers coming back as he moves into his fifth decade, he’s going to have to come up with characters who change and grow up.

Anthony Morris is a Killings columnist and has been reviewing films for almost 20 years for a variety of publications, many of which have closed down through no fault of his own. Though his insistence on reviewing every single Adam Sandler movie may have played a part. 

His essay ‘A Bad Habit: Chris Lilley and How We Rate Comedy’ appears in Issue Three of Kill Your Darlings

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  • Peter Farrar

    If nothing else, Lilley is an Anthropologist. He has in particular studied the habits (or if you like, the antics) of high school young women and translated them into the characteristics and especially speech patterns you see on this show. I know he’s nailed this, not even because I watch it (I don’t) but because my daughters say it is like watching their own schoolyard.

  • Amber

    I agree that the comedy in this series felt like an afterthought. It worried me that the sort of girls he was typecasting and their behaviour would condone it. The bullying, racism and body image themes did not sit well. Great article, though!

  • http://jennyackland.wordpress.com/ Jenny Ackland

    Great article. Agree that the potential of storylines in the first episode wasn’t picked up, and could have been.

    I think people watching Chris Lilley’s work simply ‘for the laughs’ aren’t watching it for the right reason or comprehensively. I don’t think it’s about humour necessarily which might be why it seems as an afterthought for some. I think it’s more about holding up a mirror so the viewer sees something that makes them very uncomfortable. More about social comment. And no heart of gold for Ja’mie because, she has no self-awareness, no sense of remorse, no heart. If she’d redeemed in that last episode that would have be even more wrong.

    • http://discombobula.blogspot.com Sue

      Yep, what you just said!

      I think Chris Lilley is really talented but I agree the whole thing is feeling somewhat jaded now. I was surprised at how long it’s been since WCBH first came out. I wonder if Chris is feeling stifled by expectation? I would like to see him head in a different direction, keeping that element of social commentary.

  • Brett Sprague

    He’s a bit sus that Chris Lilley

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