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The work of Australian comedian and performer Chris Lilley (Summer Heights High, Angry Boys, We Can Be Heroes) may be the ultimate litmus test of the culture wars. For some, his stupid-sweet cringe comedy is the epitome of low-brow, puerile humor relying on the retrograde style of one white man playing a host of characters across gender, age and race. (He’s employed brownface, yellowface and blackface in his past TV shows, a choice of no return for many viewers.) For others, however, his elastic features, deadpan wit and compelling character development override the distastefulness — or perhaps even appeal directly to folks who complain, “There’s too much political correctness these days!” In other words, he’s the guy you either love to hate or hate to love. Is it a waste of breath to protest the work of someone whose very purpose is to confront discomfort?
Oh well, I’ll do it anyway! I’ve always been an admirer of Lilley’s style, one of those fans who finds his racial minstrelsy intolerable but his other character work strangely addictive, particularly his cross-gender embodiments. (At best, his oeuvre is a mass dissection of performative masculinity. At worst, he’s the king of lowest-common-denominator dick jokes.) Lilley loves to outrage, knowing many of us will find laughter in the dichotomy between our social unease and our base instincts to punch down. With Lunatics, his bloated and puttering 10-episode Netflix mockumentary series, he may finally be smacking hard into cancel culture with a haphazard assortment of characters who might be eccentric, but who don’t deserve an ableist and degrading pejorative like “lunatic.” (And neither does any person with a mental health diagnosis, while we’re on the subject.)
AIR DATE Apr 19, 2019
Since Lilley has often excelled at transforming into his female characters (posh high school princess Ja’mie King from Summer Heights High or lovable juvie officer Gran from Angry Boys) it’s no surprise that his three most nuanced characters here are all vulnerable women at transitional points in their lives: bubbly dork Becky, a crafts-loving seven-foot-three college freshman with lymphedema who just wants to be loved and accepted in her new surroundings; tragic collector Joyce, a hoarding retired adult film star in the process of losing her home; and intractable grand dame Jana, a South African lesbian pet psychic in love with her engaged personal assistant. (Cruella-like Jana sports an electric afro-style hairdo, but there’s no indication her character is a woman of color, as some Internet commenters feared.)
On the other end, however, are Lilley’s duds: gruff egotist Keith, a fashion designer and objectophile carrying on a romantic affair with a cash register; overgrown frat douche Quentin, a big-bottomed real estate scion with delusions of becoming a DJ-slash-street artist; and trollish middle-schooler Gavin, a vulgar backwater prankster destined, by chance, to become the earl of an English estate. (Despite Lilley’s superb voice work here, hilariously mimicking the course speech patterns of a 13-year-old scumbro, Gavin’s look is an atrocity of costuming. Lilley, outfitted in an auburn mullet and painted freckles, also dons a fat suit that looks exactly like a middle-aged leprechaun shoved two pillows up his shirt to make himself look pregnant.) These three characters will test your patience with penis humor and how many times you’re willing to stomach the word “cunt” casually uttered every other sentence.
Lacking narrative thrust, a clear conceit or a common throughline between each of these characters, Lunatics‘ framing thus becomes, “What if misfits…existed?” The genre he comes closest to parodying are those gawking BBC human oddity docs that take us deep into the worlds of previously unknown subcultures, like mothers who breastfeed their elementary school-age children and people obsessed with uncannily lifelike baby dolls. (Or sex dolls, for that matter.) But instead of fetishistic gawping being the joke here, it’s the subjects themselves who become the objects of our cruelty and pity. Lilley callously pounces on Becky and Joyce’s disabilities — tall Becky constantly running into door frames and ceiling fans during emotional outbursts; Joyce paranoically grumbling about birds who are “listening” to her. So, while the show pats itself on the back about people accepting their “freakdom,” you never get so lost in Lilley’s performances that you just conveniently forget this series is false flag for representation or inclusion, no matter the humanity he imbues in these characters. (Sadly, washed-up porn actor Joyce, the most obviously psychologically unwell person here, is also the most believable candidate to become a U.S. reality star.)
With 10 episodes at an interminable 40 minutes each, there’s just too much material here to slog through. I wasn’t even sure I could digest half that number of episodes. Because much of it should have been left on the cutting room floor, the series itself feels like a first draft of something that could have been tighter and more developed — Keith, and especially Quentin, probably should have been excised altogether, for example. I’m sure I never laughed out loud once here, though I did become emotionally invested in the outcome of Becky’s difficult first year adjusting to university life and Joyce’s journey through her mental health struggles. “I feel like every little thing deserves to be loved,” she shares, while pointing out her treasured collection of detritus. I’m not quite as convinced.
Starring: Chris Lilley, Judi Young, Bianca Daniels, Joe Murray, Chloe Stout, Leena Arora, Amanda Murphy
Executive Producers: Chris Lilley and Laura Waters
Premieres: Friday, April 19 (Netflix)
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