Chris Lilley's comedy Summer Heights High was one of the great recent successes of Australian television, dominating the ratings in 2007 and introducing a number of terms into the popular lexicon ("ranga" being the most obvious). Australia has not had a stellar record for producing sitcoms, but SHH was one of our best; smart, edgy and hilarious. Lilley, who created the series and played the 3 main roles, was widely lauded as a comic genius.
Angry Boys is Lilley's much-awaited comeback, but its initially high ratings have plummeted. While some viewers and critics still love it, the general consensus is that it's just not funny. SHH had 3 brilliantly-drawn characters that could have carried an entire series on their own; the 6 characters Lilley plays in Angry Boys are barely interesting enough to carry an episode. His mockumentary-style has always walked a fine line; like The Office, which is the modern benchmark for this kind of comedy, Lilley's characters are often quite unpleasant and prone to inappropriate and cringeworthy moments. Yet in his first two series (SHH and We Can Be Heroes), the writing was clever enough to balance those aspects, and the characters had enough depth to make them interesting. Angry Boys amps up the foul language and "edginess", but forgets that SHH was popular primarily because it was funny.
But the series has drawn criticism for other reasons, too: it has been described as homophobic and racist.
The homophobia accusation is fairly unfounded, to my mind. Yes, the word "fag" is thrown around seemingly hundreds of time during the series, but since Lilley is trying to capture the world of the uncouth teenage boy, it's hard to avoid such a term. And while there is plenty of homophobic language, it would be a stretch to describe the series itself as being at all homophobic.
The racial aspect is a bit more troubling.
I have real problems with the two non-white characters being played by Lilley: S.Mouse and Jen Okazaki. It's not the first time Lilley has played ethnic characters, with SHH featuring Tongan school bully Jonah Takalua and WCBH featuring Chinese scientist and aspiring actor Ricky Wong. I thought Jonah was a brilliant character; having worked with many Polynesian kids in the school system I've seen plenty of kids like Jonah and it really worked for me, particularly as Lilley nailed the accent and mannerisms required for such a character. Ricky Wong was not quite as interesting a character, but worked for the most part. Both were quite easy stereotypes - Asian nerd and Pacific Islander dumb tough guy - but Lilley was able to pull off the performances, primarily because they were funny, but also because he got the nuances correct, mostly.
By contrast, his performances as S.Mouse and Jen Okazaki just seem lazy. In a recent interview with Voyeur magazine, Lilley says:
"I never sat down with a Japanese lady and studied her hand movements or anything... the performance side of it and the language is much more instinctive."
And perhaps therein lies the problem. Maybe Lilley has been around enough young Pacific Islander and Asian kids to sufficiently absorb their mannerisms and accents, so that he can "instinctively" conjure the Ricky and Jonah characters. But in playing an African-American rapper and a Japanese mother, he is in unfamiliar territory and it shows.
Jen Okazaki only seems Japanese if you've never met a Japanese person. Lilley summons up the same generic Asian accent that was passable for Ricky Wong but is just wrong here. The assumption that Chinese and Japanese people speak exactly the same is kinda ignorant.
S.Mouse is even worse. Adopting blackface is a risky move, and is bound to draw displeasure from some people. I personally would be okay with it if Lilley put the effort in to creating a decent character. But he can't do a convincing black American accent, so settles for an unconvincing white American accent instead. Lilley seems to think impersonating a black American is as simple as saying "motherfucka" and "nigga" a lot.
The Vine magazine ran a story last week in which they showed some American hip-hoppers the segments involving S.Mouse, the black American rapper played by Lilley. Their comments were less than complimentary.
Given that the "Aussie" characters in Angry Boys are quite well-rounded and are depicted with enough pathos that they almost seem like real people, it seems strange that Lilley's two ethnic characters are so ridiculous and lazily drawn. And one obvious question for me is: why does S*Mouse have to be black? Lilley clearly can't pull off a black American character, but a white American rapper, or even a white Australian rapper, would be more within his capabilities. And given that S.Mouse is a stereotypical "fake rapper", a rich kid trying to act like he's from the streets, a white S.Mouse would actually work well for such a theme.
Is Angry Boys a racist program? I wouldn't say that, but I would say that when it comes to the issue of race, it is a dumb program. Interestingly, the series (like SHH before it) probably shows non-white faces more than any other series on Australian TV. But while there are many of us who are crying out for more representation in the media, Angry Boys doesn't portray minorities in a particularly enlightened manner. Sure, most of its characters are somewhat unpleasant, but there's just something that makes me uneasy about the way non-white characters are portrayed here.
The inmates at the juvenile facility where Gran works are virtually all Aboriginal, African or Pacific Islander, and the one who receives the most attention is an Aboriginal boy whose crime was masturbating a dog. Then there's S.Mouse, of course, whereas Lilley admits that with Jen Okazaki he aimed to create "the meanest, most awful character I've ever done." The obsession with her son Tim's sexuality - and the implication that pretending that he is gay is a lucrative marketing strategy in Japan - is uncomfortable when you consider the emasculated way Asian males are portrayed over and over again in the West.
But for all that, Lilley would still get away with it if Angry Boys was only funny. But he has clearly mistaken "edgy" for "funny", and this pursuit of edginess informs his clumsy portrayals of non-white people.