Summer Heights High Review
Grumbling about the license fee is something every TV-owning British citizen indulges in, oh, at least once a day. Yeah, they might have brought back the Doctor but what else have the folk at BBC HQ treated and, more importantly, surprised its viewers with in the last few years? Once again, BBC Three comes through; it's not a secret that 75% of its output is distressingly bad (Little Miss Jocelyn, I'm lookin' atchu) but the success of Little Britain and The Mighty Boosh go to show that, every now and then, the digital channel gets it spot-on. This year, it was the turn of an Australian import to sneak up on unsuspecting channel hoppers in its midweek 10pm slot, turning initial vague interest into ardent fan worship. No terrestrial broadcast has happened - thus far - but, given its word-of-mouth popularity and critical success, it's safe to say Summer Heights High was perhaps the highlight of the UK summer (no pun yada, yada). It's almost enough to make us forgive the fact that Strictly Come Dancing will be with us until Christmas.
A lot can happen in one school term; that's the length of time Australian high school Summer Heights High has agreed to be filmed by a documentary crew. Following the tragic drug-related death of a young girl, self-titled 'Director of Performing Arts' Mr G plans a hard-hitting stage show that he believes will cement his reputation as a creative genius. While Mr G fights against censorship and the overriding authority of the school principal, student Jonah Takalua - who, in his own words, is 'choosing not to be smart at the moment' - runs the risk of being expelled from his third school in 18 months. Meanwhile, 16-year-old nominee for 'Australian of the Year' and self-proclaimed 'smartest non-Asian in Year 11' Ja'mie King participates in an exchange program, swapping private education for the joys of public school. Will she treat the Bogans of Summer Heights High to an end-of-year Formal to end all Formals?
Given that the concept doesn't strike one as intrinsically hilarious, kudos need to be given tenfold to Chris Lilley. Creator, writer and star - yup, that's him disappearing into all three of the main roles - he wrings every drop of humour from each scenario, no matter how ludicrous or seemingly mundane. The insufferable Ja'mie, his take on the 'mean girl' stereotype (catchphrase: 'just because I'm rich doesn't mean I'm a bitch'), will incite plenty of guilty snickers but the show undoubtedly belongs to his other two creations. Foul-mouthed Year 8 student Jonah provides big belly laughs with the ongoing turf war between him and the Year 7 break-dancers, while an unfortunate stain on a pair of tracksuit bottoms proves a particularly memorable moment. Unexpectedly, the resolution of his arc packs an emotional punch in the final episodes, his relationship with remedial English teacher Jan Palmer offering a genuinely sweet climax.
Sweetness isn't a word one can use in relation to drama teacher Greg Gregson aka 'Mr G', the breakout character of the show's central trio. Self-serving, whiney and absolutely hilarious, the creator of 'Tsunamarama' steals the show simply by being a terror. You get the sense that Lilley himself knows he is the highlight, dedicating every pre-credit teaser sequence to the egomaniacal teacher. Whether planting human faeces in the Special Education classrooms or telling students they look like walruses, Mr G lands the highest ratio of guffaws and it's obvious Lilley is relishing every line. We're also treated to some of the funniest songs in recent memory, as Mr G prepares for his latest 'arena-style spectacular' by penning the wildly inappropriate Naughty Girl (already released as a single in Oz). When we get to the spectacular itself, featuring giant ecstasy pill props and Mr G - who else? - in the starring role, it's the perfect cap to a bizarre man's journey.
Fans of Lilley's previous stab at docu-style hilarity We Can Be Heroes, where we first met Ja'mie, will not be disappointed. Like in Gervais' The Office, the fly-on-the-wall camera style exposes the character's foibles and worst qualities by simply observing. There's a loose, improvised feel to a lot of the material, adding to the authenticity, and visual gags such as the school's anti-rape mural and Jonah's unique 'tag' balance out the verbal and physical comedy. Some of the humour is very close to the bone, referencing AIDs, eating disorders and 'wheelchair people' but those who get offended are missing the point; inevitably, the target of the joke is always the ignorant character saying the words. If there's a problem with the show, it's that it hits too many of the same notes over eight episodes and could have possibly done with being trimmed back to six. This is nitpicking, though; it's always better to have too many episodes of a good comedy than not enough.
This theory certainly applies to the DVD extras. Each character gets a wealth of deleted scenes on the second disc so, whichever of the three happens to be your fave, you're in luck. Although the sound is an uninspiring stereo 2.0 mix, the show looks great on a sharp transfer - maybe next time a wider variety of extras would help round out the package though? But is there going to be a next time? Following Ja'mie and Jonah's departure from the school, it's hard to see how Lilley will continue. The doors may be closed at Summer Heights High for now but let's hope we'll be able to go back to school sometime in the near future - only if Mr G's teaching, of course...