There are those who hail Australian actor Chris Lilley, most famous in the U.S. for his HBO mockumentary series Summer Heights High, as a kind of genius--a comic chameleon on a par with Peter Sellers. His latest series, Angry Boys, which premiered Sunday, pretty much confirms that he is not. But don’t tell HBO, who co-produced the 12-part series that focuses on the exploits of a number of I.Q.-challenged adolescent boys and the adults who put up with them, all of whom are played by Lilley. The show is ostensibly a comedy, but be warned--this is a "feel-bad" brand of humor that trades more in bigotry and human suffering than it does in actual laughs.
At the center of the series are 17-year-old twin brothers Daniel and Nathan. Nathan is gradually going deaf, and becoming increasingly isolated from the world. Daniel is his antagonistic brother who takes great pleasure in hurling gay slurs at his sibling--Nathan's only defense is an upraised middle finger. Their father died when they were young; now the mother’s nice-guy boyfriend is moving in, earning their open hostility.
A parallel plot plays out in a juvenile detention center, where the most dangerous boys in Australia are held for everything from theft to manslaughter. There we meet Gran, a mannish security guard and den mother who earns the boys respect by interacting on their level. She tells off-color jokes and splits teams into “blacks and whites.” She’ll think nothing of shouting “fag” when they fumble the ball. (Variations of “fag” and “faggot” are uttered relentlessly throughout Angry Boys.) Despite her methods and questionable judgment--she likes to play practical jokes on the boys, including tricking one young inmate into thinking he’s earned an early release--Gran is clearly meant to be Lilley’s most sympathetic character. Gran is also Daniel and Nathan’s actual grandmother.
Lilley shoots for broader comedy with S.mouse, an accidental rap star from L.A. who rockets to stardom with a spectacularly stupid single called “Slap My Elbow,” and quickly becomes an industry joke as a kind of hip-hop Justin Bieber. S.mouse is where Lilley tumbles badly; the other stories, while downers, are at least well-observed. But S.mouse, which features the star in head-to-toe brown makeup (what does one call that? Blackbody?) and takes Lilley far away from the comfort and familiarity of Australian locals, offers no insights into the music industry that haven’t been made countless times before. S.mouse is under house arrest for defecating on an LAPD car and posting the footage online, and so he's moved back in to his parents house. It’s a mansion, where his father explains that none of his “thug life” posturing is real: S.mouse grew up wealthy. Lilley is stabbing at wasp nests here with the racist implications of such a characterization, but the bottom line is that S.mouse is a bore.
There are more characters yet to be introduced in upcoming episodes, including a Japanese mom who manages her son’s pro skateboarding career (she forces him to pretend to be gay as a means of setting him apart) and a former surfing star who’s now a deadbeat with no testicles (he lost them in a gang shooting). But what there doesn’t appear to be anywhere on Angry Boys’ horizon is a point. It’s too easy to set up a half-dozen or so buffoons like bowling pins and knock them down; it would have been nice if Lilley had thrown in a few intelligent young men to keep things a little more interesting. Smart guys get angry, too.
Did you watch Sunday's premiere? What do you think of the characters we've met so far?