Last night’s premiere of Chris Lilley’s third mockumentary series, Angry Boys, was a reminder that television comedy in Australia as we once knew it has changed forever.
In the wake of the popular successes of We Can Be Heroes and Summer Heights High, the hype surrounding Angry Boys could have proved career crushing for Lilley.
Yet, the first episode of Angry Boys showed an actor and writer at the height of his satirical power. Angry Boys is ambitious in its comic intent as Lilley focuses his attention on the problems of being a boy.
Last night’s episode began with the return of the twins from Dunt in South Australia, Daniel and Nathan Sims. Later episodes will introduce new characters including American rapper S.Mouse, Japanese Tiger Mum, Jen Okazaki, as well as Aussie surfer, Blake Oakfield.
The little Aussie mockumentary is going global and provides a shot in the arm for locally produced, quality Australian television.
Daniel and Nathan Sims are still living with their single mum, younger brothers and sister, and an unwelcome addition to the family unit – their mum’s new boyfriend Steve.
Fans of We Can Be Heroes will remember that Daniel had been nominated for the Australian of Year for his generosity in donating an ear drum to his deaf twin brother Nathan. We return to Dunt to find the operation has failed, and Nathan is facing a future where he will be profoundly deaf.
The triviality and banality of the Sims’ twins mildly delinquent behaviour and their mundane lives is juxtaposed with the harsh reality for the boys incarcerated at their Gran’s (Ruth Sims) youth detention facility. Gran is a triumph of political incorrectness.
As he did with J’aime King and Pat Mullins, Lilley once again shows his stunning ability to fully inhabit a rounded female character.
Gran’s pride in her guinea pig collection and the superhero pyjamas she makes for the boys transform her into a caring figure, despite her questionable disciplinary methods.
Sadly, it quickly becomes clear that any support she can offer her wayward charges is little more than futile.
By fleshing out the background of Daniel and Nathan, and introducing us to Gran, the first episode of Angry Boys was a scathing indictment of our society’s ability to adequately understand or support teenage boys.
By episode’s end, there was a sense of despair for Daniel and Nathan’s future, together with an air of poignancy as they Skyped their Gran and she reminded them to “be good”.
It is the poignancy and despair that help us to understand how the mockumentary has changed television comedy. Blending documentary techniques with satire beautifully confuses the viewing audience.
Mockumentary creators like Chris Lilley can use this confusion between reality and fiction to present comedy so black, that it quickly stops being laugh-out-loud funny.
Through the pretence of portraying “reality”, mockumentaries present characters that would be howled out of a traditional, three camera, studio sitcom.
With the use of location settings and non-actors in minor roles, the satirical excesses of characters like Daniel, Nathan and Gran are written so large that they cannot be ignored.
Instead, as with the best mockumentaries (such as Ricky Gervais’ The Office) audiences are arrested into recognising the characters’ flaws.
Accompanying this recognition is a critical look at our society. These characters are strangely horrific and exaggerated. Because they shock us, make us cringe, or even can be quite affecting, oddly they are closer to reality than previous versions of the sitcom could ever be.
Just because we might no longer be laughing, doesn’t mean that mockumentaries aren’t still funny. What is most impressive though is that this particular genre of television comedy is sometimes not even funny at all.
Instead, the comedy of the mockumentary sometimes gets angry.