It’s a commonly held view that Chris Lilley peaked with Summer Heights High. He followed up the cult success of his breakthrough show We Can Be Heroes with a concise, perceptive and devilishly funny show that captured the experiences of many of its viewers. I was completing my HSC at the time, and those characters and situations were so disturbingly recognisable that every episode was discussed at length each Thursday morning by students and teachers alike. Lilley’s following two series (Angry Boys and Ja’mie: Private School Girl) weren’t met with as strong a critical response, but Jonah from Tonga is a clear return to form.
The ABC released the entire six-episode series to iView for 48 hours over this weekend, before the first episode airs on television this Wednesday night. Note that this is a review of the entire series, so it does contain spoilers. The release strategy was probably partly to reinforce iView’s online presence as a primary viewing platform and more than just a “catch-up” service, and partly to capitalise on the success Lilley’s previous series have achieved on iView.
But it might also be because the first two episodes aren’t particularly strong. Perhaps the ABC felt they could capture viewers with the ability to binge-watch the series, rather than lose them when they find themselves disappointed with the pilot and decide not to tune in next week.
The series begins with Jonah leaving Tonga, where he was sent to live at the end of Summer Heights High because of his behavioural problems. There are some strong gags with Jonah wreaking havoc in Tonga and telling his cousins some fairly fantastical stories about life in Australia, but it’s back to the comedy we know as soon as he returns to Australia. Unfortunately, the laughs don’t come as quickly as they should, probably because it’s all comedic ground that Lilley’s covered before. His constant aggressive profanity, bullying and abuse of his teachers doesn’t have the impact it once did. But there are some seeds planted that grow into something bigger in later episodes (references to Jonah’s mother, who died when he was a child, set up his desperate need to form strong relationships with older women).
The series heats up when a youth worker “Kool Kris” (Uli Latukefu) arrives at the Holy Cross High School to help Jonah and his “Fobba-licious” crew curb their bad behaviour through music. Things seem to be going well until Jonah decides to hold up a local bowling alley with a machete. He then finds himself in juvenile detention, and it becomes clear what he really values. His relationship with a guard, Therese (Belinda Sharp), is particularly poignant.
It’s Jonah’s relationships with the supporting characters that eventually become the most compelling aspects of the series. There are the teachers who try, in their own, unique ways, to support Jonah and set him on the right path. There’s his father (Isaia Noa) who wants Jonah to succeed, but really doesn’t know how to make that happen. There’s his Aunty (Linda Horan) who understands just how deeply his mother’s death affected him. And there’s his younger brother Moses (Tama Tauli’i), who Jonah is determined to make a success out of by scoring him a record deal.
Lilley is again facing criticism for racial insensitivity, and there are fair questions to ask (should Lilley have hired a Tongan actor to play the Jonah? If he had to play the role himself, should he have done so without “browning up”, and asked the audience to suspend their disbelief a little further?). Thankfully, Lilley has drawn a character that is richer than the one we saw in Summer Heights High, and although stereotypes dominate the surface, there’s depth underpinning it.
Although it never reaches the same fever pitch as Summer Heights High, Lilley would seem to have his finger back on the pulse of the high school experience and the frustrations of trying to find your way in a society that has largely cast you aside. This is probably the most nuanced show he’s ever created, even if it has the fewest belly laughs.
At the end of six episodes of Jonah from Tonga, there still feels like there’s more to explore with this character, and relationships that feel deeper than what we’ve seen. It actually leaves you wanting more. You couldn’t say that at the end of Ja’mie: Private School Girl.