It shouldn’t be a major point of contention that Australian comedian Chris Lilley’s output is best viewed purely as an exhibition for his awe-inspiring, absurdly committed, chameleon–like performances. Throughout all three of his previous shows (We Can Be Heroes, Summer Heights High, and Angry Boys), Lilley has played each and every one of the central characters. Few others ever get a word in. The spectacles that are Lilley’s creations even manage to eclipse the fact that they’re all, from breakdancing Tongan punks to ferociously vile teenage girls, being played by an adult man.
Ja’mie: Private School Girl picks up more or less where Summer Heights High left off, with Lilley’s longest running character, the aforementioned abominable teen, returning to her private-school roots for senior year after surviving a term in a public school exchange program. The singular name in the title is completely sincere: This is Lilley’s first series where he only portrays one character, which works mainly to the show’s disadvantage. While Ja’mie may be a catchphrase-spouting, scorchingly offensive, satirical embodiment of the most air-headed and privileged aspects of the current generation of teens, she’s not really all that compelling of a character. The entire “joke” is that Ja’mie’s completely incapable of changing. While she can adapt and thrive in any given situation, she’s unable to learn from her mistakes, to be shamed or convinced of her wrongdoing, and, to make matters worse, completely surrounded by enablers of her self-delusion. It’s impossible for Ja’mie to ever have any real conflict with anyone, because everyone from teachers to friends to parents seem to labor under the impression that this racist, juvenile monster is just the greatest.
It’s simply a failed experiment in branching out, or to be kind, an oddball attempt at art-house pacing and repetition.
Because Summer Heights High, along with all of Lilley’s other work, was a sketch show, you didn’t have to spend an extended amount of time with every one of the central characters; they appeared in each episode for only long enough to deliver a quick-witted punchline or ridiculous vignette. Here, we’re trapped—or rather, sentenced—to spending the entire season with one screeching non-character. In a moment representative of the show’s cringe-inducing sense of humor, Ja’mie excitedly tells her gaggle of indistinguishable friends (all of whom have zero lines of dialogue that aren’t about how “quiche” she is): “The African that I read to? He sent me a dick pic.” The “African” in question is a Ugandan immigrant who lives in the “totally povo” housing development where Ja’mie goes to read The Hunger Games to local teens. She later “adopts” the boy to live with her and her family in a sort of misled attempt at community service in order to win the distinguished Hillford medal. She eventual assigns him to be her waiter at parties, and a few episodes later, once even the thickest viewers have grasped the scant joke that, yes, Ja’mie is very, very racist, he’s more or less discarded as a character. And again, most frustratingly, no other character even thinks to call Ja’mie out on her outlandishly cruel behavior, or even show any trace of surprise or scorn.
The first several episodes follow a similar trajectory: Ja’mie is texted a picture of a penis, Ja’mie says a bunch of offensive things, Ja’mie lambasts her depressed mother, and finally, Ja’mie dances provocatively. The meager semblance of a plot tracks Ja’mie’s bid to win the Hillford medal and have a statue erected in her honor, as well as her relationship to Mitchell (Lester Ellis Jr.), the new rugby player at the neighboring boys’ school, though it’s really the made-for-YouTube dance sequences that eat up the most runtime.
The season finale manages to mix things up, almost dropping the repetitive jokes altogether in favor of some crushingly dark moments that suggest that Ja’mie might not be as blithely unaware as we think she is (though certainly no less selfish), and a gloriously ballsy and absurd climax that would feel at home in a Yorgos Lanthimos film. While the scene comes in the form of yet another goofy dance sequence, this one actually manages to be daring and funny by finally referencing and playing with certain physical expectations of Lilley’s gender-swapping performance. It’s the singular payoff for those viewers who manage to soldier through to that point, but it’s one of Lilley’s finest moments both in self-reflexive concept and execution. More than anything, though, Ja’mie is simply a failed experiment in branching out, or to be kind, an oddball attempt at art-house pacing and repetition. It’s slight, short, and ultimately forgettable, and if you happen to find its purposefully obnoxious catchphrases and satirically blithe racism funny, a pretty good gauge of whether or not you’re a terrible person.