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TV Weekend: Summer Heights High

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What did drama teachers ever do to the entertainment world? The job has become a shorthand for vain, deluded, imperious, frustrated hack—look at High School Musical, Hamlet 2 and (at the community-theater level) Waiting for Guffman. Or they’re vampiric, insulting predators, like Frank Langella’s acting coach in HBO’s Unscripted a few seasons back.

I don’t get it. Do all actors and screenwriters have such bitter memories of their youth? My high-school drama teacher wasn’t such a bad guy. On behalf of Hollywood, I apologize, Mr. Haysley. You have been traduced. 

To this pantheon of portrayals we can add HBO’s new Summer Heights High (debuting Sunday at 10:30 p.m. E.T.), an Australian import comedy whose writer-star Chris Lilley plays three characters, including, yes, a self-important high school drama teacher. If you’re hearing “Australian import comedy,” thinking of Kath & Kim and recoiling in terror, let me reassure you: this one is rerun in its original version, not remade with American stars, and this one is quite funny.

Set at an Australian public high school—and shot at a real one, with real students in the cast—High is a mockumentary that follows three storylines, each starring Lilley. His drama teacher is “Mr. G.,” a fussy, ambitious drama queen who dreams of striking it big in musicals and is now writing one based on an Ecstasy overdose at the school. (His previous work includes Ikea: The Musical and Tsunamarama ’06.) No, it’s not the most original character or situation in comedy (cf. Nothing Ever Happens in Blaine or Rock Me, Sexy Jesus), but it’s a pretty reliable one, and Lilley plays Mr. G with clueless, egocentric relish. Even as he starts writing ditties that brand a dead student as a slutty drug user—”I’m a party girl with a bad habit / A bad habit for drugs!”—his face carries a wide-eyed bliss, believing that this will be not only his masterwork but a catharsis for the school. 

One student in need of catharsis is Ja’mie (pronounced Ja-MAY), a similarly tightly-wound exchange student from a private school. (“I’m, like, the smartest non-Asian in Year 11… And I’m good at sport and everything that Asians can’t do.”) She’s an old character for Lilley (who created her for an earlier show, We Can Be Heroes), though the fact that he’s clearly a grown man squeezed into a teen girl’s jumper makes it hard to lose him in the character. But he gets the mannerisms of a stuck-up teen with a worldview seemingly entirely informed by Gossip Girl convincingly. 

Lilley’s best character, however, is Jonah, a sullen, foul-mouthed, hip-hop-obsessed Tongan student. With a hardass father and a none-too-bright future, Jonah is a little like a teenage Tongan Eric Cartman, swearing at his teachers and claiming a bullying incident was just “punking.” (“I said, ‘You got punk’d!’ afterwards and he didn’t even get it!”) The difference being that when you make Cartman a 13-year-old, a few years from a life on his own with his options dwindling, there’s an added level of poignancy. While Jonah’s story isn’t exactly maudlin—his scenes are usually the funniest of the three—it does add a depth of character sometimes missing in Lilley’s other two, broader personae. 

Like the original Kath & Kim or The Office, Summer Heights High relies heavily on cringe humor. In this case, the cringes come partly from the fact that High is shot in an actual Australian high school, with actual students in the supporting cast. It’s uncomfortable, yet funny, to see Lilley as Ja’mie, flirting with a 12-year-old boy (she has a thing for younger men), then “breaking up” with him in a jealous rage: “You’re a f_cking a__hole and thanks for breaking my heart you f_ckface!”

Summer Heights High is not a perfect comedy, and those offended by crossed boundaries will feel their boundaries crossed. But it’s a welcome, if sometimes familiar, HBO comedy while we wait for the return of Flight of the Conchords. Just don’t tell your high-school drama teacher.