For those of you who are unaware, Chris Lilley, star of Angry Boys, is apparently one of Australia’s living national treasures, along with Rolf Harris and the kangaroo. That’s knowledge that came after I watched episode one of Angry Boys.
Having never heard of Chris Lilley, never seen 2008’s Summer Heights High and, watching without my glasses on, not noticing how many characters he played in it, all this hype was lost on me. I’m glad it was, because I would have been even more disappointed than I was. It was a single recommendation from a Facebook friend that spurred me to watch this Aussie ‘mockumentary’ and I will question that friend’s taste forevermore.
From the start, I wasn’t really sure what this was supposed to be. Filmed in short bursts between Daniel and Nathan, identical twins, and Garingal Juvenile Justice Centre for 10- to 18-year-old boys, there was no voiceover from a disembodied voice explaining parts of the ‘mockumentary’. A good voiceover is often key to the credibility of programmes of this type, giving sometimes inane but sometimes well-observed commentary on the lives of the protagonists. Voiceover was provided by the characters themselves, often deliberately showing their self-perceptions to be wildly deluded. This kind of voiceover works well if it’s from an outsider, lending comedy to their assertions of, say, being good at surfing, then filming them wildly flailing in a river, their surfboard catapulting from beneath them.
Lilley welcomes us to their farm in Dunt (180 acres, middle-of-nowhere, Australia) with a few swearwords and mise-en-scene shots of the desolate scrublands that surround the home of the twins. Daniel shouts at twin Nathan, who’s ‘deaf… he’s a little bit retarded too’, urging him to come down from a corrugated iron roof. Nathan pointedly replies with a raised middle finger (a common theme throughout, first seen in the opening credits, which we’ll come back to later).
Heavy on the swearwords, which are apparently employed to lend some comedy to the dry storyline, Angry Boys takes us through the lives of ‘Danthan’ (a portmanteau, á la Jedward), their journey through adolescence, when they inevitably ‘went a bit more different’, their hijinks winding up Steve, mum’s boyfriend, and their ‘legends wall’ (comprising Dad, Gran, and a pin up girl).
Gran, also played by Lilley, is ‘a real asset’ as the head of Garingal Juvenile Justice Centre, where ‘the worst boys in the state’ serve time for breaking and entering, assault and manslaughter. Gran ‘knows the place better than any [of the other employees]’ and has been the chief of the juvenile centre for more than 25 years, with her own house on the site, complete with several guinea pigs. Her raison d’etre does seem to be the well-being and discipline of the boys, though she does appear to revel in their subservience to her, especially when doing one of ‘Gran’s Gotchas’. The ‘gotcha’ is commonly done with a sense of good humour – sending up the victim, seeking their reaction for fun, rather than plain humiliation – so the first gotcha; falsely telling a boy he was getting an early release, seemed to be mean rather than funny.
Her role is varied; she’s a counsellor, jailer, entertainer and, above all, a racist, foul-mouthed harridan. It’s difficult to know whether fans of the show are laughing with Lilley’s creations, or at them, for their vile behaviour. This is the real crux of whether you find Angry Boys funny; the racism and juvenile, toilet humour.
And so we go back to Daniel, Nathan and Steve, mum’s much-maligned boyfriend, who struggles to earn their respect. He’s innocuous enough and has a sidekick – his ‘fag dog’, Marcos, dubbed ‘fuckos’ by Daniel. Apparently the dog’s gait and the shape of its rear end suggest its sexual leanings.
Call me a prude, but I don’t find swearing for the sake of it funny. Call me PC, but I don’t find casual racism or homophobia funny. Not to mention the mocking of ‘retard’ Nathan. This might be an up-tight reaction to a program supposedly lampooning these racists and chauvinists, but I ask again: are we supposed to be laughing AT them? Gran’s role in overseeing the boys seems also to be one of demeaning them, especially in a scene where a football team is separated thus: ‘light skins versus dark skins… you’re a light skin, I know you’re an aborigine, but you’re a light skin’. A nod to Gran’s behaviour is made by one of the centre’s staff, who says she ‘turn[s] a blind eye to the way she operates… she delivers results’. Gran even acknowledges her own methods, in a rare moment of self-reflection and exonerates herself with the notion that she needs to ‘make an impact on them… [they’re] bad cookies’.
It’s difficult to think of a similar program, having not seen Lilley’s previous incarnations in Summer Heights High, but I would liken this to Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, in that it supposedly mocks bigots. Difficult to swallow in the case of Angry Boys, especially since the next episode sees Lilley ‘black up’ as rapper S. Mouse.
I’m sorry to report that I laughed just once in the 28 minute program: at Daniel who, speaking to Steve, who’s just moved in, asks “What’s four minus three?” and answers before Steve can retort, with a raised middle finger. It was a call-back to myself at age 13, brave enough to make a finger gesture at my own parents. But it was a short ‘I-recognise-that-cockiness’ snicker and a far cry from the guffaws and cackles I was hoping for.
There are, no doubt, several people who’ve reached episode ten on BBC 3 by now and love it. I’ll give it another episode, just to be sure. But I won’t hold my breath for that second laugh.