With the HBO import Summer Heights High, Australian comedian Chris Lilley should be applauded for perhaps the highest degree of difficulty ever attempted in a half-hour comedy series. Not only is Lilley the creator and writer here, but he also plays three of the main characters, with a similar abandon to that of U.K. chameleon (and previous HBO vet) Tracy Ullman. Set up as another typical high school reality program, SHH uses a documentary style to depict the goings-on at a high school (secondary school) in Australia, focusing on three fictional characters inhabited by Lilley. Think the U.K. original The Office and the mockumentary films of Christopher Guest, only sprinkled with a lot more non-actors, and you're in the ballpark.
The first of Lilley's characters that grabs you is the drama teacher, Mr. G., who owes a bit to Waiting for Guffman's Corky St. Clair in both flamboyance and the belief that his genius will win the day. It's here that a lot of subtle jokes whip past the casual viewer, like a series of posters for plays that he has written including Ian Thorpe: The Man, The Music, The Water; IKEA -- The Musical: A furniture song and dance spectacular and his greatest triumph, Tsunamorama, the Tsunami tragedy set to the music of Bananarama.
The other two characters that Lilley plays are a lot more difficult to swallow initially, because they're students in the school -- in one case of a different sex and in the other of a different race than Lilley himself. Ja'mie (pronounced "Jah-may") is a private school exchange student, the sort of empty-headed girl of privilege that every 90210 clone has. ("Oh, you've got wheelchair people. It's so cute!") The other student Lilley plays is the Tongan bully Jonah, who by about the third episode sort of becomes the centerpiece of the series. He's crass, sullen and genuinely unable to understand why he's being punished when he's providing a much needed lightening of mood. ("It's not interruption -- it's entertainment!") Lilley completely inhabits this character with his mumbling and breakdancing, and it's with Jonah that the strength of the series lies, as we find more about him and what makes him tick.
At first, it's hard not to be taken aback by both the talent and the gall of Lilley playing these three characters, but after three episodes you start to forget and the oddity gives in to the comedy of the story -- so I encourage you to watch more than just two episodes before bailing. It's unfortunate for HBO, though, that this is a hurdle that most viewers won't be able to get past, likely meaning it will end up with Little Britain USA in the HBO comedy scrap heap (a fate it doesn't remotely deserve).
Summer Heights High debuts on HBO Sunday at 9 p.m.
A musical note: The series did produce one bona fide hit in Australia, with the song "Naughty Girl" from a Mr G production: