One newspaper dubbed Chris Lilley “Australia’s answer to Ricky Gervais” — a comparison that, alas, is funnier than almost anything in this mockumentary fished up from Down Under. Lilley not only created the show but stars as the three central characters in this eight-episode look at a year in the life of a public high school, the twist being that it mixes actors with actual students and teachers to construct the would-be hilarity. Cultural distinctions notwithstanding (will U.S. viewers double over at a Tongan accent?), “Summer Heights High” seldom rises above silliness and mostly proves just plain irritating.
Granted, annoyance is the primary emotion Lilley yearns to invoke, building the action around a trio of tone-deaf personalities that he plays: Mr. G, a flamboyant drama teacher, who creates an original musical based on a school tragedy; Jonah, a Pacific Islander punk with a surly attitude, who mutters garbled obscenities at teachers under his breath; and Ja’mie, a spoiled private-school girl reluctantly transplanted to SHH who endeavors to fall in with the popular kids but regularly insults them along with everyone else.
The common theme — the trait that renders each of these personalities over-the-top cartoons — is utter self-absorption. It’s what prompts Mr. G in later episodes to fume that including Special Ed kids will ruin his masterpiece; Jonah to accuse his father of improperly touching him to escape reprimand; and Ja’mie, who is supposed to be 16, to strike up a relationship with a 12-year-old boy. (These scenes, played by the 33-year-old Lilley in drag, cross from satirical to the verging on creepy.)
At the risk of sounding obtuse about what was apparently a big hit in Oz: Sorry, but what’s the point? Lilley is a gifted mimic in a fast-talking Robin Williams kind of way, but if this is considered edgy, DVDs must be taking an awfully long time to reach Australia.
That’s largely because every wrinkle here feels familiar, if not stale: The hand-held, documentary-style camerawork; the vain Valley-girl teen; the foul-mouthed immigrant youth whose anger partially masks learning disabilities; and the drama teacher pathetically living out his thwarted dreams by mounting school shows as if he were Bob Fosse — a common beat most recently employed in Steve Coogan’s “Hamlet 2.”
The program’s best moment, actually, occurs in each week’s title sequence, as a tracking shot follows a running kid through the halls, musically accompanied by the soaring strains of a choir. Otherwise, this represents a second conspicuous misfire for HBO with a comedy import, coming on the heels of “Little Britain USA.” Much as I loved “Extras” — and enjoy the service’s clever but more cultish musical-comedy “Flight of the Conchords,” from New Zealand — maybe it’s time to start growing your own.
“Summer Heights High” does administer a couple of lessons, but they’re unintended — demonstrating that comedy tends to be more culturally specific than we like to acknowledge and that finding HBO-worthy half-hours is no small feat, even if you span the globe looking for them.