He's new to Netflix but Lilley's latest comedy doesn't move far beyond poo jokes. Anthony Morris is not a fan.
Image: Chris Lilley in Lunatics. Source: Netflix.
You never forget the first time you see Chris Lilley at work, mostly because every time you see him is exactly the same. He’s a skilled performer with a knack for creating and inhabiting vivid characters; he also has zero idea about how to craft a story and a sense of humour that would embarrass a teenager. Over a career spanning fifteen years, he’s made basically the same series five times; it’s about as surprising as seeing Lilley playing a surly foul-mouthed teenager to report that Lunatics is once again more of the same.
If someone asked you to guess what a new Chris Lilley series would be like, what would you say? Would it be, say, a grim tale of a small town rocked by a murder that uncovers a deep secret that affects the whole community? A reality show where strangers pretend to be married? A cooking show? Something with lasers? Reading out the lotto numbers?
Only joking: obviously it’s going to be a mockumentary with a soaring choral theme tune where a group of oddball characters do surprisingly little considering just how long the series ends up running for. Lunatics features six of Chris Lilley’s trademark “amazing” performances, only two of which are fast-talking loudmouth businessmen and one is a sullen potty-mouthed kid. Oh, and there’s a deluded middle-aged woman running a crazy yet successful small business too: for a master of disguise with an uncanny ability to capture the nuances of his characters, he sure does like playing the same people over and over again.
There is one big surprise about Lunatics: that it exists at all. While his first solo series We Can Be Heroes was critically acclaimed and the follow-up Summer Heights High was a massive Australian hit that made him famous worldwide, it’s been a slow steady downhill slide since then. Angry Boys struggled in the ratings; Ja’mie Private School Girl and Jonah From Tonga were outright flops. Society’s shifting values made his fondness for blackface increasingly problematic; his refusal to move with the times seemed set to consign him to the dustbin of comedy history.
Then Netflix stepped in. The streaming service has a long history of giving former big names another chance; it’s good publicity for them, and a decent way to get new viewers on board. It also has a history of giving comedians past their prime a place to keep on doing what they do, a la Ricky Gervais’ most recent comedy series After Life. Now Chris Lilley is back, and it’s like he never went away.
Lunatics features six characters, which the press release describes as follows:
Keith, a fashion retail veteran embarking on a new business venture who struggles with objective sexuality issues and his deep love for a cash register.
Becky, an extraordinarily tall University freshman embarking on life in an American college with her twin sister and dealing with social issues and life with massive legs.
Gavin, a confronting young boy and future Earl of an English country estate dealing with the pressures of his future and trying to be a kid.
Jana, a lesbian Pet Psychic to the Stars who from her South African home base struggles with an unrequited love for her personal assistant.
Quentin, an incompetent real estate agent about to inherit a family business who dreams of being a world-renowned DJ and street artist.
Joyce, an eccentric elderly ex porn star and hoarder who is now a recluse who obsessively collects things while facing an impending eviction.
As usual – and that’s a phrase you’ll be seeing a lot of in this review – the jokes here range from the childish to the moronic. Keith’s last name is Dick and yes, he has sex with the cash register; Quentin comes from a family where everyone has a big arse; Gavin is sent to stay at Gayhurst Manor; Jana gets naked with the pets. When a decent joke arises, it’s run into the ground through repetition; while it was mildly amusing the first time the pet psychic informed a client that their pet was embarrassed by their tail, or thought that their nose looked like a penis, or saw their owner masturbating, by the second episode the thrill has faded. Only eight more episodes to go.
The trouble with this series, as with all of Lilley’s series, is that there’s zero forward momentum. His improv heavy style means he can’t script out a story in any real way; many of the scenes here are clearly Lilley just messing about doing whatever comes to mind while in character. But without a story, each episode pretty much ends where it begins, and what little character development there is happens at a glacial pace. There are ten episodes here, each running around 35 minutes; self-indulgent isn’t quite the word.
If Lunatics feels a little airless at times, like you’re actually inside Chris Lilley’s head while he’s ceaselessly muttering to himself, that’s hardly surprising. This is a show written by Lilley, directed by Lilley, has a theme song written by Lilley, features a cast of six characters all played by Lilley and is both Executive Produced and Produced by Lilley (with only Laura Waters also credited as Executive Producer and Producer). It’s a wonder the end credits don’t just have the words “Chris Lilley” flashing up on the screen by themselves over and over again.
To be fair, there are a few minor changes from Lilley’s usual template. There’s a lot more swearing for one; the c-word rapidly establishes itself as a go-to punchline. There doesn’t seem to be quite as much cheap pathos on the horizon either, so fans of classic storylines like “Jonah means well but gets in trouble” and “Gran means well but has Alzheimer’s” might be disappointed.
More promisingly, Lilley seems to have remembered that his characters work best with someone to bounce off. Just about everyone here is rapidly paired off with a sidekick who actually gets a few lines (which really is a step up from how the supporting cast were treated in some of his previous series). This doesn’t mean that the focus is off Lilley in any real way – this is as much a vanity project as anything he’s ever done – but even the most rudimentary form of back-and-forth with an actual human being goes a long way towards making Lilley’s grotesques more amusing.
The real problem here is the same as its been throughout Lilley’s career. He refuses to work with other writers or actors – usually his supporting cast is made up of non-professional actors, though that hasn’t been confirmed here – and yet he hasn’t had an original idea since 2004. He remains a remarkably talented performer with an extremely narrow range and a sense of humor that hasn’t moved beyond poo jokes; the best that can be said about Lunatics is that at least this time he’s given up the blackface.
Lunatics is streaming on Netflix now.
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