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Jonah from Tonga series review

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. 

Jonah from Tonga begins Wednesday 7 May at 9pm on ABC1

19 responses to “Jonah from Tonga series review

  1. Very very funny – if you have watched the whole series it is genius so get off your liberal high horses . Gosh ‘blacking up ‘ ,isn’t that putting on make up ? Rediculous that this is offensive to people and they think this to be taboo . It’s a comedy so view it as such while you can before loony liberals ban the use of any humour as they know what’s best for all of us and that only what they think is great will they recognise as genius . Series 2 please !!!!

  2. I haven’t laughed so hard at a comedy for quite some time. Funny on so many levels!
    Lilley is a genius.

  3. Honestly anyone who thinks Chris Lilley is a “Genious” are severely lacking in both a sense of humour and a brain.
    His story lines and characters are poorly formed and created and the only reason he plays the part himself is because he enjoys the sound of his own voice and seeing himself on camera.
    I have seen better comedy sketches written and performed by primary school children. I want to support Australian talent but talent he is not.

  4. Lilley is the idiot that he characterizes as Jonah. I find it offensive that he uses the name of Tonga and her people as a laughing stock and he’s laughing all the way to the bank. Original? Come one, he’s copying the NZers.

  5. lilley is an insensitive idiot who should have consulted the tongan elders of sydney before airing a show that will stigmatize a people that have made worthy contributions to the australian society.

  6. When was racism defined as exaggerating, stereotyping and impersonating the characteristics of another race? We ex-Poms would have a hell of a claim if that was correct. What happened to the knockabout Australian, ready to call a spade a bloody spade? The country is full of hyper-sensitised whingers – politically correct to the point of hysteria and too keen to take offence on behalf of others.

    Nobody seems to comment on the quality of the script, Lillee’s direction and the naturalness of the acting. It’s a refreshing contrast to the wooden style of shows such as Rake, Miss Fisher and Crownies. It’s almost up to Redfern Now standard.

  7. Agree completely with Pete and Nevertheless, Lilley is a genius. Hard to beat anything he writes for topical, ironic, make-ya-think TV. Except maybe Housoes. It’s time to get out of our boxes peeps and take a look at some of the complex, less advantaged groups in our society, and learn from them!
    Keep it comin’ Chris Lilley :)

  8. Pete, you are so correct – forget all the petty comparisons.
    Who else has originality and the boldness to come out with this??
    No let us just binge away on pathetic second rate bile in case we offend ….dear oh dear!

    Love Chris Lilley long may he continue to write brilliant characters.

  9. I think this series was very good. The character of Jonah is developed well, and the audience can see that the story isn’t finished yet. It’s tragic and funny. There seems to be very little hope for Jonah’s character, despite the best efforts of his teachers. Maybe he will mature if/ when he gets to Grade 11. Chris Lilley is a genius.

  10. Chris Lilley is a flat out genius and national treasure. All this knit picking about which show is funnier. Step back for a minute and ask:
    Is there anyone else in our national landscape that comes close to the bravado and originality that Lilley has? NO!
    Also, think for a minute what it takes to create these characters and shows. The guy is a phenomenon, every bit Barry Humphries equal.
    Love, love, love Chris Lilley :)

    1. I would say it take him very much at all to come up with the characters or the story lines. Chris Lilley is neither funny or clever and not in the slightest entertaining. It’s brain dead television made by a moron who enjoys cross dressing and the sound of his own voice.

  11. Lilley has moved on from just trying to be funny. Angry Boys was far better at the 2nd viewing because we weren’t looking for laughs (there weren’t that many) but looking at what was behind the minds of the angry boys. A bit like Gervais’s Derek (another gem) a lot of people won’t bother to think about it. Jonah is far more than just a white man with black face trying to be funny.

  12. A crime worse than blackface…. just not being funny… Clue: man slipping on banana skin (big thing undone by a little one) = funny, Banana tree falling on man and crushing him to death (little thing undone by a big thing) = tragic. White private-schooled man mocking teenage girls and Tongan boys= tragic.

  13. I’m in the minstrel camp so won’t be watching but it astounds me that a comedy show that has ” fewest belly laughs,” seems to get such a positive review. When it comes to comedy reviews what I’m looking for is the reviewer primarily to tell me if they though it was funny. It’s pretty difficult to find someone prepared to do that these days.

  14. You could drive a very big truck indeed between the impression given by the intro – “offensive and unfunny” – and the review proper. Bizarre.

  15. while I agree that Lilley has a great feel for High school life, Having, in another life been a teacher, i just don’t see where these stylings/characterisations take us. There seems to be nothing happening here other than a sort of fascination with the grotesque. But like so many other Australian scripts – whats the point?


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