A review of Chris Lilley’s ‘Angry Boys’, now that the series has ended on ABC1.
With the final episode of Angry Boys screening on ABC1 last week, I felt it was time to review the series.
Angry Boys is the latest television series from Chris Lilley, the comedian who created We Can Be Heros: Finding the Australian of the Year in 2005 and the critically-acclaimed Summer Heights High in 2007.
With the success of the immensely popular Summer Heights High under his belt, there was a lot of excited anticipation towards Angry Boys. The ABC certainly did it’s best to hype-up the series.
I have to say I was somewhat disappointed with the result.
In some ways, Lilley had an inevitable problem. Unless his new show was nothing short of brilliant, it was inevitably going to be compared to Summer Heights High. Writing in Crikey, Matt Smith made the valid point that with three television networks funding the programme, it would be a struggle making a series that would appeal to the different cultural markets of ABC Australia, HBO America and BBC Britain. Correct he was.
Angry Boys introduced us to autocratic Japanese mother Jen Okazaki and her skateboarding son Tim (Jordan Dang). Tim pretends to be gay to assist his mother’s GayStyle Enterprises merchandising outfit that was established to leverage profit from Tim’s combined athleticism and faux homosexuality. We also met 65-year-old Ruth ‘Gran’ Sims, a juvenile prison officer and grandmother of Nathan and Daniel Sims from Dunt, South Australia, who featured in We Can Be Heroes. Then there’s faded surfer Blake Oakfield who is a 38-year-old man going on seventeen. And finally there is black American rapper S.Mouse, who created the worldwide hit Slap Your Elbow.
Summer Heights High was funny and yet poignant because of the brilliant characters supported by Lilley’s excellent acting. We’ve all known a horrible bitchy girl like J’amie at school. We’ve all sat in a class with an antisocial boy like Jonah who cloaked his struggles with disruptiveness. Gee, we all had an “arty” high school teacher like Mr. G who could have been gay, but none of us really knew. The characters were deep and complex yet real and grew in each episode. Summer Heights High was as much a social commentary as a comedy show and made us think deeply about education and contemporary Australian society.
Contrast this with Angry Boys, where the suspension of disbelief was nearly impossible.
Japanese mum Jen Okazaki was the least-believable character, both in appearance and manner. Comedy shows play on stereotype, either through reinforcement or exaggeration to make a point. Yet for me Jen Okazaki failed on both of these. Okazaki’s language was fowl, and whilst I don’t pretend for one minute that Japanese women don’t swear, the sheer volume of vulgar profanities emanating from her mouth would almost make a sailor blush. My mind simply couldn’t reconcile this with the image of an Asian mother, even one as obnoxious as Jen.
Perhaps Lilley’s acting reprieve comes via S.mouse, a talentless 24-year-old black American hip-hop artist who had a worldwide commercial hit. Playing on the stereotype of a B-grade rapper, S.mouse pretends to come from the slums when in fact he was raised in a wealthy household and previously sung in a church choir. Whilst Lilley struggles with a convincing American accent, S.mouse’s character offers us a lot to work with on account of his complete naïevity about the dual shallow reasons for his new-found social popularity and why Lesquisha (Kristin Dione Metoyer) remains his girlfriend. When he’s dumped from his record label for releasing an unauthorised song called Poo on You, his attempts at launching his own career fail to much comedic effect and S.mouse struggles to understand why Lesquisha dumps him and no-one wants to know him anymore. Whilst not profound, it makes for an amusing story.
Perhaps less engaging are the twins, Daniel and Nathan. Nathan’s hearing almost disappears and whilst struggling with a teenage body filled with testosterone, he also has to prepare himself to go to ‘deaf school’ in Adelaide. His cruel brother Daniel torments him all the way, although we see that Nathan’s pranks, whilst being fewer in number, tend to be smarter.
For me, the relationship between Daniel and Nathan was a wasted opportunity. When Daniel wants to insult someone, “fag” is his slur of choice. In one episode, Daniel’s exasperated mother invites Henry Keddeys – “an actual fag” – to spend time with Daniel in an attempt to convince him to stop using the homophobic term. Whilst Daniel realised that Henry is actually a good bloke, he returns to calling people “fags” in subsequent episodes anyway. The character doesn’t develop.
Likewise, as the date of Nathan’s departure comes closer, we’d expect that despite his juvenility that Daniel might finally develop some empathy. Again, we are disappointed. Perhaps Lilley wanted to show that love between Australian brothers is demonstrated with larrikinism, but again the theme isn’t really developed.
Even in the case of Ruth ‘Gran’ Sims, who tries to build a relationship with a near-mute boy who’s been sent to the prison for bestiality crimes, we see little development in the characters. When we discover that Gran has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and she inadvertently contributes to a suicide, it feels like the matters are treated in a superficially light manner.
One of the things that made Summer Heights High such a success was that it was as much a social critique as a story about relationships and character development. When Jonah realised that he was on the verge of being expelled, we could feel the sense of despair and it made us ask how, as a society, we should effectively deal with people like Jonah. It was so deep and emotional yet all the way through the show Jonah had made us laugh with this juvenile jokes and pranks and we’d enjoyed his story.
I suspect with a name like Angry Boys that Lilley was trying to create an intelligent and thoughtful comedy in a similar manner. Unfortunately it seems that character development came at the price of an excessive degree of vulgar language that was well beyond contextual requirements. In Summer Heights High Jonah swore just like most teenage boys do at some stage. But we seldom heard profanities from Mr G, for example. Yet every single one of Lilley’s characters swears like a sailor in Angry Boys. When S.mouse greeted an audience of elementary school children by yelling out “How’s it goin’, mother fu*kers?”, it seems that even the foolish S.mouse would not be so thoughtless, let alone the teachers would just stand there wooden-faced.
Sometimes comedy has to “push the envelope” and challenge us. We saw this in Summer Heights High which dealt with some very serious issues such as teenage suicide, homosexuality and cyber bulling. These delicate matters were treated in a respectful and thoughtful manner whilst the show still made us laugh. But what was Angry Boys telling us?
Some have said that Lilley’s portrayal of S.mouse as a juvenile and idiotic black person is racist. Whilst I disagree, it certainly walks a fine line and I can understand why black Americans may ask if this isn’t a form of modern-day minstrel show. But perhaps it is S.mouse that more than any character provides us with something meaningful to think about. His painfully lame hip-hop songs that utilise every musical cliché of 2011 attempt to demonstrate the poor quality of commercial hip-hop and pop music today. When S.mouse’s absurd song Slap Your Elbow was actually released in Australia, and climbed to no 37 in the ARIA charts, Lilley demonstrated his point in the best way possible.
As for the other characters, I am less certain there is a message. Blake Oakfield told us that a wife will leave a grown man who acts like a teenager. Daniel and Nathan Sims told us that boys can be mean to each other whilst Ruth ‘Gran’ Sims showed us that Alzheimer’s disease leads to forgetfulness. Jen Okazaki was mean to her son and drove him to rebel. It’s hardly profound.
Angry Boys is primarily a comedy, so perhaps we shouldn’t expect a deep analysis of issues. Perhaps Lilley sought to highlight causes for modern-day teenage angst rather than make us think about them.
Angry Boys isn’t a bad programme and it was engaging enough for me to watch the whole series, even if people turned off in large numbers. It certainly had its moments of laughter, that’s for sure.
I admire Chris Lilley a great deal. He has a brilliant skill in character observation and impersonation but I believe me might have overstretched it for Angry Boys.