Despite the fact that I have been out of school for a number of years that are irrelevant to this article, I still get nervous pangs whenever I see back-to-school commercials or feel that undeniable click in the air from summer to fall. Maybe it's because I don't like coat season or maybe it's because high school is a nightmarish hellscape that operates on an outdated social hierarchy and I have empathy for anyone going through it. It's probably more the latter.
But rest easy, youths. (Or, the brave adults who have to teach said youths). There's still a week left of summer vacation and that leaves you plenty of time to watch all of Chris Lilley's brilliant and painfully hilarious mockumentary comedy series Summer Heights High . Not only will you be able to finish it with time to spare (the Australian series is, sadly, but eight short episodes) but you'll walk away with the comfort of knowing that even if you do have to spend the school year dealing with a Jonah or a Ja'mie or a Mr. G, it will be a hell of a lot funnier.
But let's back up a little and study up on the history of Summer Heights High first. The brainchild of mad comic genius Chris Lilley (who not only wrote and created the series, but stars as the three main characters), the show aired on Australia's ABC TV back in September of 2007. It made its way to the states in 2008 courtesy of HBO (they also aired Lilley's follow-up Angry Boys, which doesn't pack quite the same punch as Summer Heights High but is still worth a watch).
Lilley, like Ricky Gervais, wisely chooses to do a set number of episodes for his shows. Not only does this mean the show never gets stale, but it simply tells the story it needs to tell. And, unlike high school, it only gets funnier the more you think back on it.
The wildly un-PC mockumentary pokes fun and holes at society (there is no jokes off-limits in Lilley's world, there's jabs at everything from the disabled to rape) while following the lives of three characters at the fictitious Summer Heights High over the course of a semester: the aforementioned Jonah, Ja'mie ("It's weird, but you'll get used to it"), and Mr. G. The brilliant thing about the three main characters is that none of them are remotely likable or nice people, but you get watch – and cringe—from the outside while still feeling like you're very much in their world.
So just keep in mind when you start school this year, that you don't have to deal with the following:
Greg Greggson, or Mr. G (or how you'll be pronouncing it, "Mee-stah Gee," as that is one of the side effects of watching Summer Heights High : you'll start saying everything with Lilley's native Australian tongue). Mr. G is an over-enthusiastic, self-indulgent, narcissistic drama teacher who creates incredibly insensitive original shows for his students to perform. First there was Tsunamarama, "a musical about the tsunami tragedy, set to the music of Bananarama," and then came a musical about a student named Annabel who had recently died of a drug overdose with the morally reprehensible, albeit damn catchy, ditty "Naughty Girl. Mr. G is one of those people who thinks he is doing something for the greater good, when really it's for his own self-fulfillment. If you're met or dealt with an unbearable theater kid or theater teacher whose massive ego and deluded sense of self doesn't match their talent, Mr. G will strike an awfully close chord with you. That said, Mr. G's segments, no matter how uncomfortable they may be, are some of the show's funniest moments. From his obsession with his tiny dog Celine (she has an over-sized brain, you know) to his misguided attempts at goodwill and being a role model, it's perhaps the most outrageous character on the show. You don't know who to feel worse for: his students or the other teachers. Actually, I feel worse for anyone that had scenes with "Mr. G" and had to keep a straight face.
Jonah Takalua Now, everyone went to school with a Jonah. He either bullied you or disrupted your classroom or you befriended him just to keep him off your back. In the Summer Heights High world, Jonah is a 13-year-old troublemaker with a sad back story (he lost his mother at a young age), unresolved anger issues, and a foul mouth ("Puck you, miss!") that have got him expelled and kicked out of numerous schools. He's annoying and rude and crass, yes, but you know there's something underneath, that everything he does is a cry for help and that every bully has something that made them that way. It's all the more amplified when we meet Mrs. Palmer, a teacher who not only has patience with Jonah (even when most of us would lose it) but actually gets through to him. Summer Heights High is a decidedly non-sentimental show, but during the final episode when Jonah thanks Mrs. Palmer for "wasting her time" to teach him how to read and promises to read every day at his new school, it's the first time the show makes you cry from something besides laughing so hard.
Ja'mie King. Oh, Ja'mie. The most endlessly quotable ("So random") and most hilariously horrific character of the bunch. Like Mr. G, Ja'mie has no sense of self-awareness whatsoever, every compliment and "humble" boast is oozing with backhanded mean-spirited nature and utter irony. ("There's so many attention-seekers here, it's so tragic)." An over-achieving exchange student brought in from a private school to see/endlessly ridicule how the other half lives ("I don't want to brag, but they wanted someone decent looking;" "I'm the smartest non-Asian in Year 11"), Ja'mie is an extreme embellishment of every overachieving mean girl you ever had to deal with in high school. She's "pretty" (as pretty as Lilley in drag can be, though it's always so believable that you'll often forget you're watching a grown man play a 16-year-old girl), conceited, bratty and has completely surface-level relationships. There's nothing remotely redemptive about the superficial Ja'mie, but you won't be able to laugh at the utter insanity of her or the god awful people who function like her. No offense.
Of course, Summer Heights High is a show strictly for serious students of television and for those who understand the smart, tongue-in-cheek nature of Lilley's brand of comedy. It’s outrageous at times, but there are no tidy resolutions or unrealistic barriers being broken down like on, say, Glee. It's not out to teach you a lesson, it just allows you to look at the absurd nature of high school with a little perspective and one hell of a sense of humor. Watch it this week (and at least once a year from here on out, it only gets better the more you watch it) before you go back to school, have a big laugh, marvel at how effortlessly Lilley disappears into all three characters, and be damn grateful you'll know to just laugh off someone like Ja'mie from here on out.
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