Chris Lilley, the creator of the brilliant Australian comedy Summer Heights High, is back on US TV screens right now with Ja’mie: Private School Girl on HBO, a mockumentary comedy following three months in the life of Summer Heights High and We Could Be Heroes star, queen-ultra-mega-bitch Ja’mie King.
Having watched the whole series, which wrapped up in Lilley’s native Australia last week, I can attest that while it starts off slowly, it gets better and better, building up to a cracker of a final episode. Private School Girl has already come in for a lot of slack from some US critics, (in particular this bizarrely scathing review from the AV Club, which lobs in a wholly unwarranted and unqualified “transphobic” slur against Lilley, the kind of casual misuse of language that makes the author seem idiotic) but to these eyes and ears it’s nothing short of brilliant, a pinpoint accurate piss-take of teenage bitchery and the shallowness of youth.
By her very nature, Ja’mie King is a polarizing character, lacking any shred of warmth or sympathy, so it’s understandable how she can divide audiences and critics alike. But liking Ja’mie is not really the point, is it? For me, one of the biggest, and most disappointing, flaws of modern satirical comedy is the gradual humanizing of central anti-hero characters. Malcolm Tucker (played by Peter Capaldi) in The Thick Of It is a good example. A British political spin doctor, Tucker is literally the embodiment of all that is wrong with politics and the current democratic process in the UK, yet over the course of four series and one feature film, the audience was gradually asked to drop the “hate” part from “the character you love to hate” and to root for Tucker, even as he, and the system he represents, makes our lives demonstrably worse.
There’s no such problem with Ja’mie. She starts despicable, and she ends despicable, as befits a character who is so self-absorbed. See for yourself”. Here is the first episode of Private School Girl, in full, via YouTube (US only):
Even beyond the social satire inherent in making a mockumentary about modern teenage girls, to me Ja’mie King stands out as a feat of incredible female impersonation. I can’t think of another drag character on TV that is just so on point, from the language and vocal intonations to her subtle (an not-so-subtle) mannerisms and constant hair-fiddling. It’s simply uncanny, and the cognative dissonance of that face playing that part (as well as the abandonment of drag clichés like too much make-up) simply adds to the comedy. Lilley must know a lot of teenage girls to have that physical language so down.
Fans of camp and subtle observational humor will find a lot to like here. And let’s face it, Ja’mie appeals to the spoilt teenage brat and screaming diva in all of us, traits which have already made the character a budding gay icon (even though it will come as a surprise to many that Chris Lilley himself is not gay.) With that in mind, I would like to present my own Private School Girl tribute track, in a typical CVNT TR4XXX vogue-house style, featuring some of the best disses and bitchy quips from the show:
Lilley is also prepping a new Summer Heights High spin off series centered around beloved bad boy character Jonah Takalua which promises to be more empathetic than cold-hearted Ja’mie, and hence better or worse, depending on which way your taste lies. We can judge that one when it comes out, but for now, let’s revel in the epic bitchery of Private School Girl.
To get you in the mood, and for readers outside the US, here’s a jaw-dropping DVD extra from Summer Heights High, a four minute scene of Ja’mie trying to convince her mother, via mobile phone, to come and pick her up from school. Presumably this is all improvised, and just goes to show what an incredible character actor Lilley is: