Of all the characters to survive Australian comedian Chris Lilley’s mockumentary “Summer Heights High” (as well as its predecessor, “We Can Be Heroes: Finding the Australian of the Year”) and land her own show, it’s no surprise that insufferable, entitled princess Ja’mie King is the one who shoved and gyrated her way to the front of the line. The spoiled 17-year-old, the girl you loved to hate (but mostly hate) has gone back to private school in a new faux reality show that picks up where “Summer Heights High” left off.
Like Tracey Ullman in “Tracy Takes on . . .” or Matt Lucas and David Walliams of “Little Britain,” Lilley excels at playing multiple characters. His rubbery smile and elastic expressions gave “Summer Heights” a cult following as he played Ja’mie with a smile and a sneer, drama teacher Mr. G (think Corky St. Clair in “Waiting for Guffman”), and complicated troublemaker Jonah. Here, however, he’s made the puzzling decision to whittle himself down to playing Ja’mie.
We all encountered some form of Ja’mie in high school. She is the alpha mean girl who forms vellum-thin friendships only with girls who use the most expensive teeth whitening systems, keep their hair perfectly straight, and qualify as “quiche,” the term Ja’mie and friends coin to replace hot.
Those who are not deemed quiche are at the mercy of Ja’mie’s insults. When she’s not calling her fellow students fat or lesbian, she’s delighting in insulting Asians as she bounces along the campus of Hillford Girls Grammar.
“This series is about my last few months in school and the events that changed my life forever,” explains Ja’mie in the episode’s opening explanatory salvo.
Ja’mie, unfamiliar with humility, lets us know that she’s not only quiche, but good at everything. Her klatch of friends are at her side to reinforce that belief, even as Ja’mie gawkily performs a laughably horrendous interpretive dance (part of the dance focuses on helping Africans, the other part on her modeling career). It’s all part of her attempt to score the prestigious Hillford Medal given to “Best Girl in Year 12.”
But there are cracks in Ja’mie’s thin veneer, and very early in the season it’s clear that there are cracks in the show. In the past, Lilley’s Ja’mie was surrounded by his other creations. Here, we have nothing but Ja’mie — and as “Heights” fans know, a little Ja’mie goes a long way.
Think back to Rick Gervais’s David Brent in the British version of “The Office.” Gervais was skilled at making viewers horribly uncomfortable by digging himself into verbal graves. What gave the show humor were the reactions of those around him. “The Office” staff reflected what viewers were thinking at home. We could all commiserate and cringe together.
There are no such characters in “Ja’mie.” Her friends seem to be around for the sole purpose of encouraging her unrelenting nastiness. Her parents bend to her ridiculous demands. Only her sister sasses back.
This is the sad downfall of “Ja’mie.” Lilley’s writing is sharp and funny. He has an uncanny insight into high school. But the story is slow to unfold, and after two or three episodes, the premise feels stretched as tightly as Lilley trying to squeeze into Ja’mie’s school uniform. Where are the schoolyard catfights that should be happening with such a cruel girl?
In “Summer Heights High,” there was an odd charm to Ja’mie’s outlandish behavior, to which she often seemed sincerely clueless. Her insults were always followed with a smile, as though ending every barb with “no offense” would remove the venom.
This is a Ja’mie who is just plain cruel, and with nothing to soften her, the sting of her forked tongue is the only lasting impression.