The lives of men - not just professionally as cops, doctors, or lawyers, but their personal gender identities - have been front and center in several new comedies this season.
Most of the network sitcoms like “Last Man Standing’’ and the already-canceled “How to Be a Gentleman,’’ have played with the concept of what it means to “be a man’’ for broad laughs. With “Angry Boys,’’ airing Sunday night at 10 on HBO, Australian writer-actor Chris Lilley goes for something a little more nuanced as he trains his mockumentary lens on boys, men, those marooned in between the stages, and even some of the women in their lives.
Lilley is the mind behind the critically acclaimed series “Summer Heights High’’ (which also ran on HBO) and “We Can Be Heroes: Finding the Australian of the Year.’’ Both were hits in his homeland, as was “Angry Boys,’’ whose 12 episodes will air two at a time for the next six weeks.
As with his previous shows, and in a similar vein of fellow comic chameleons Sacha Baron Cohen and Tracey Ullman, the nimble Lilley plays multiple characters, and does a remarkable job of capturing the quirks and details of each one.
He pulls sextuple duty as bratty, bored, middle-finger-flipping identical twin 17-year-olds Nathan and Daniel Sims from small town South Australia (and holdovers from “Heroes’’); their kindly but awkward grandmother Ruth - known as Gran - a prison officer at a juvenile correction facility; S.mouse (pronounced “smouse’’), a clueless 24-year-old African-American rapper in Hollywood; Jen Okazaki, a Japanese momager to a skateboarding prodigy; and Blake Oakfield, a 38-year-old former surf champ.
Each is filmed in their natural habitat, reality-show style, subsequently giving viewers a warts-and-all look at who they are, even when they clearly don’t understand who that is themselves.
Daniel is simultaneously loving and outrageously demeaning to Nathan, who is near profound deafness and is being sent to a special school much to his twin’s dismay. S.mouse - with Lilley in heavy makeup and afro - is a terrifically misguided soul who realizes his upper-class upbringing hurts his street cred but isn’t secure enough to own who he is. Oakfield, adrift from surfing after an accident, is a blank slate who has hitched his identity to a harmless childhood gang whose shenanigans still entertain him even as he approaches 40 with a family. Daniel and S.Mouse are frequently, casually profane, boorish, poop-obsessed, and easy to let loose with racial and homosexual slurs.
Anyone who’s been within earshot of the kind of teenage boys, young rappers, and man-children that Lilley is portraying, can spot the accuracy with which he shows them processing complex emotions through a filter of bravado and cruelty. But, accurate or not, in the three episodes I watched, the cumulative effect of all that bitter swagger and insult-slinging was bringing the characters perilously close to unlikable, yet not close enough to uproariously funny to balance it out.
It’s interesting that Lilley’s most successful character here from an engagement standpoint is Gran, who has some truly poignant moments with the angry boys under her watchful eye.
The mixing of those elements - crassness, poignancy, social commentary - is a hard one to master, and Lilley doesn’t always succeed in tying them together in a way that is funny beyond the amusing cringe of recognition. The laughs-per-episode mileage will likely vary for fans of Lilley’s previous series who might bring a deeper appreciation to his tone; and after three episodes, the series definitely shows signs of becoming richer from a story standpoint. But as admirable as his ambition to go somewhere a little darker is, it would nice if these “Angry Boys’’ got a little funnier too.Sarah Rodman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.