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Television Review

Whacked-out times at 'Summer Heights High'

By Matthew Gilbert
Globe Staff / November 8, 2008
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He had me at "Tsunamarama." Chris Lilley, a chameleonic Australian cringe comic, plays all three lead characters in the hysterical HBO comedy series "Summer Heights High." One of them is the demented Mr. G, a jazz-pants-wearing drama teacher who pens his own song-and-dance productions for his students. "Tsunamarama" is his musical about the 2004 tsunami, set to the music of Bananarama.

"Summer Heights High" gives us an idea of what Christopher Guest, creator of spoofs such as "Waiting for Guffman" and "Best in Show," might come up with if he were to make a TV comedy series. This Australian import, premiering tomorrow at 10:30 p.m., is a wonderfully twisted mockumentary about the fictional Summer Heights High - it's a CW teen series or "Degrassi High" reflected in a fun-house mirror. Lilley's flamboyant Mr. G is a desperate version of Corky St. Clair from "Waiting for Guffman"; his Ja'mie is a stuck-up student who appoints herself queen bee of her circle; and his Jonah is a tyrannical juvenile delinquent and the bane of his teachers' days.

Lilley, in makeup and wigs, makes these three originals funny and painful to watch in equal measure. He's an affectionate parodist like Tracey Ullman, getting all the body language just right. Ja'mie is a precisely exaggerated Blair Waldorf from "Gossip Girl." But Lilley likes to let his characters reveal their ridiculousness at great length, in the manner of Ricky Gervais of "The Office." Like Gervais's David Brent, the world's most absurd boss, Lilley's Mr. G, Ja'mie, and Jonah are self-involved people who live out their delusions with excruciating obviousness. They let their human nature surface a little too independently of their reason. When Ja'mie, 16, is driven to make a 12-year-old boy date her, it's as funny as it is uncomfortable for the viewer.

Each character has his or her own arc over the course of the season's eight episodes. Mr. G plots to take over the performing arts department, and he plans a musical based on the recent drug death of a student. His Broadway show-must-go-on spirit looks a lot like megalomania. When he talks about having performed the "Xanadu" soundtrack at his ninth birthday party, you can imagine how insufferable it must have been. Ja'mie, a prep schooler who's spending a year at public school in an exchange program, is on and off with her clique of snobs. At one point, she and her warring friends need to attend a group therapy session.

And Jonah, an angry misfit, keeps falling further through the cracks in the education system. Now at his third school in 18 months, he is perhaps the most off-putting, and yet the most poignant, of Lilley's trio.

"Summer Heights High" was filmed on location at a school in Melbourne, and the characters mingle with non-actors. The nonfictional veneer feels authentic, and so does Lilley's talent.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com.

TELEVISION REVIEW

SUMMER HEIGHTS HIGH

Starring: Chris Lilley

On: HBO

Time: Tomorrow night,

10:30-11

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