Thursday, November 28, 2013

Ja'mie: Private School Girl: Mockumentary Satire as Vicious as a Mean Girl

When we last saw rich girl Ja'mie (written and played by the incomparable, multi-talented Chris Lilley) in Summer Heights High, she was a Year 11 private school exchange student who spent her time in public school degrading and belittling just about everyone and everything around her. Ja'mie -- Lilley's longest-running and arguably most popular character to date -- was a spoiled, self-centered, ignorant, manipulative, racist, homophobic nightmare of a human being. Now in Year 12 and back at her private school Hillford, Ja'mie is still all of those things but somehow, worse than ever.

This new six-episode HBO series follows the titular Ja'mie's final year at school as she relentlessly vows to earn the prestigious Hillford medal by not only bullying her closest competitor, a humanitarian named Erin (Brodie Dare). Ja'mie ups the "humanitarian" ante by "befriending" a disadvantaged Ugandan teen named Kwami (Albert Mambo) and bringing him into her home. The way Ja'mie exploits not only Kwami, but African culture as a whole, is far and away the most upsetting storyline in the entire show, but probably the most effective, too. The worst part of all this is that, despite "helping" him for all the wrong reasons, Ja'mie might actually care for Kwami but refuses to cross those racial or economic borders.

In the midst of all this, we're also introduced to Ja'mie's home life, which explains a lot about her. There's her successful, emotionally vacant father Marcus (Brad Brivik), who gives in to Ja'mie's every want and need; her tortured, depressed mother Jhyll (Jhyll Teplin) who has more or less been beaten into submission (sometimes literally) by Ja'mie and her cheating husband; and her exhausted, angry kid sister Courtney (Madelyn Warrell) who gets revenge on Ja'mie, which leads to some stunning consequences. You can piece together why Ja'mie is ambitious, but not empathetic (she shares her father's "winner" attitude), but even the slightest trace of humanity in Ja'mie is fleeting. Case in point: when she weakly tries to comfort her sad mother, she immediately follows it up by telling her that her outfit makes her "look like a cancer patient."

But they aren't the only new characters/victims to cross Ja'mie's path in this show. At school, Ja'mie is surrounded by her popular band of girl friends who hang on her every hateful word, despite her willingness to throw them under the bus to have her every need met. Then there's her gay BFF Cody (Alex Cooper), an equally vapid hanger-on from the boy's school Kelton. They all pine over Mitchell, a cute, but idiotic new rugby player who spends his days flirting with girls and sending them pictures of his penis. In fact, the ever-present topic of dick pics, sexting and Skyping are a focal point for most of the series and leads to a shocking set of events that stun the school's administrators.

When you're not laughing in spite of yourself as Lilley spouts out Ja'mie's inane catchphrases like "Quiche," "YOLO," and "Sooooo random" or picks apart the ridiculous behavior in general of teenagers (including their need to Instagram everything like "cray clouds"), you'll be busy trying to pick your jaw off the floor. It is a vicious, relentless comedy. (In one scene, the always hypocritical and clueless Ja'mie declares herself the "ambassador of niceness" only to openly mock a group of Asian students in the same breath). Lilley's brand of satire could make Sacha Baron Cohen squirm in his seat.

The series tries to hold up an unforgiving, ugly mirror to the worst kinds of girls that are coming of age in Generation Selfie. Everything from their vanity (even their goodbyes are overly dramatic, empty gestures) to their sexist attitude towards one another (Ja'mie and her friends spend most of their days calling other girls "fat," "sluts," "bitches," or some variation of all three) to upper-class culture are skewered. But, honestly, would any of the types of people being mocked by Lilley even notice that all of this was a critical takedown of them?

But what really doesn't sit well with Ja'mie: Private School Girl is that there are no consequences to any of the actions of these terrible people. There's no sense of Schadenfreude for viewers who get the whole Ja'mie gag. At least Tina Fey's takedown of the behavior of teen girls in Mean Girls not only humanized both sides of the story, but it was as funny as it was clever. Not that any of Lilley's shows -- be it Angry Boys or Summer Heights High -- ever went for comfort, but at least those shows didn't rely on one joke. (What makes Armando Ianucci's equally foul-mouthed shows like The Thick of It or Veep so effective is that they are as sharp as they are nasty).

If anything, these characters -- Ja'mie in particular -- have everything go their way. And since she learns nothing, what are we to learn? That we are the mercy of entitled monsters? At least with Summer Heights High you'd get a break from Ja'mie with Jonah and Mr. G segments, but here the already too-much Ja'mie can be, as you'd expect, too much. (Plus, wouldn't Jonah have been the more interesting character to follow up with out of that bunch?)

Lilley is a daring, hilarious performer (he gets so lost in Ja'mie that you never for one minute remember you are watching a 39-year-old man) but Ja'mie -- who is like an Internet comment come to life or every single girl to ever appear on an episode of My Super Sweet 16 -- is someone you only want to spend a minimum amount of time with. Lilley's talents cannot be denied and I look forward to seeing what he does next, but while Ja'mie is supposed to make us laugh at her horrific antics, in the end she somehow gets the last laughand it's on us.

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