Creating characters is just what comic actors do, and no one who has seen the television work of Tracey Ullman or Matt Lucas and David Walliams -- or, for that matter, Red Skelton or Jackie Gleason -- should be too amazed to find Australian writer-actor Chris Lilley(comedian) playing the three lead roles in his new mockumentary series, "Summer Heights High," premiering Sunday on HBO.
Lilley was last seen (and first seen) here, on the Sundance Channel, with last year's "The Nominees," in which he played five finalists for the (real-life) Australian of the Year Award, two of them female, one Chinese. When I first saw "The Nominees," it took me a while to realize it was him in all those parts. Once you see it, there's a distinct pleasure in watching him sink into such distinctly different characters -- the bravura performance is part of the package -- but there is a greater pleasure in the way he integrates them into their respective, realistically drawn crowds, making a plausible story out of what might otherwise look like a stunt.
The premise here is that cameras have followed three individuals through the course of a school term: the drama teacher Mr. G; Ja'mie a rich, private-school girl -- she first appeared in "Nominees" -- who is spending an exchange term in public school; and Jonah, a 13-year-old Tongan disciplinary problem.
Both Mr. G and Ja'mie are grotesque, self-involved, self-dramatizing, self-aggrandizing characters who see themselves as basically, even immoderately, good. "I come from one of the most expensive private girls' schools in the state," Ja'mie tells a school assembly by way of introducing herself, "but I'm actually really cool. Please don't be intimidated by me. People always quote, 'Private schools create better citizens.' But I would say they create better quality citizens."
Mr. G (whom Lilley first developed on the series "Big Bite") uses his drama classes as a stage for himself. He dreams of building a towering campus performing-arts complex, bearing his name, and when a student dies of a drug overdose, he hijacks the tragedy as a subject for his next school project. "She's been sent by an angel to give me an idea for a musical," he says holding up the dead girl's picture with a smile. "So I'm just over the moon."
Although spookily well-realized, they are essentially sketch characters stretched about as far as they can go. (It is an eight-episode series.) But the barely literate, troublemaking Jonah is something else again -- there is nothing exaggerated about the performance, in which Lilley perfectly embodies all the brutal tics and awkward evasions of a mixed-up 13-year-old boy. And though he's a bit of a foulmouthed bully, Jonah is the only one of the three leads you are asked to like; he gives the series the heart without which it would otherwise expire.
"They don't understand that I'm just choosing to be dumb," he tells the mockumentarians. "I'm not dumb; I'm just choosing not to be smart at the moment, but if I put in . . . effort . . . then I could be really smart. But I choose not to. And they don't get that."
Some of the humor here is sure to offend, and some of the scenes involving Mr. G and the school's special-education students, one of whom becomes his assistant, fall just shy of being exploitative. (The humor is not directed at the students but at the teacher.) Sixteen-year-old Ja'mie's pursuit of a 12-year-old boy is also uncomfortably strange. But all in all, it's a rich work, full of detail and small moments, and grounded in reality by an utterly believable supporting cast partly drawn from the school where the series was shot.
'Summer Heights High'
When: 10:30 p.m. Sunday
Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)