Sunday, November 9, 2008

Musing on Summer Heights High

Some of this appeared in the Courier Mail yesterday in an piece by Erica Thompson who kindly contacted me for a comment. It seems Summer Heights High is getting rave reviews in the US (as opposed to the critical panning of KandK). Anyway I thought I would post the lot in case anyone is interested. It's really just thoughts in response to some points raised from Erica - that may appear later and be followed through in more academic papers.

Glowing critical reviews do not always translate to high ratings. And sometimes shows rate highly but are critically panned. And then you have something like Kath and Kim which got bad reviews and poor ratings. The shows do seem to be being received differently in the US and it would be wonderful for Summer Heights High to be celebrated as I think it deserves every success. As to the reason why it could be something to do with Summer Heights High’s comic style. The Australian Kath and Kim relies very much on catchphrases and broad physical, visual and verbal comedy. Summer Heights High is closer to the deadpan comedy style of the mockumentary that we see in The Office, where the comedy is somewhat blacker. By this I mean, there are moments that are funny, but there are also a great many awkward, embarrassing, almost cruel scenes which make the viewers cringe in disbelief. Perhaps this kind of comedy translates more easily across national and cultural boundaries, although I imagine the ratings will be the real judge. I also think part of the attraction of Summer Heights High (as with Lilley’s previous effort in We Can Be Heroes) is watching him play all the characters . It’s a real comic tour-de force.

It’s always difficult to say whether programs will translate into other markets. I think it always depends on the people involved in the project. I was very sceptical that Ricky Gervais’s The Office would translate well to the USA but it seems to have succeeded. Maybe Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant were able to regain more control than Jane Turner and Gina Riley were able to. I do think that with the right people involved Summer Heights High might have had more of a chance of success in translation as I think it’s characters are more universal types. This is slightly different to Kath and Kim where so much of the comedy is based on the nuances of Australian culture, and clearly it was difficult to capture the essence of this in the US version. I also felt that Selma Blair was miscast as Kim – there seemed to be a hesitation in the US Kath and Kim to embrace the grotesque dagginess of the Australian version. But then, maybe that was one of the aspects of the program that was lost in translation. What I would have really liked to see was an American network take a risk on running the Australian version of Kath and Kim and seeing how it was received. In remaking program I think there is a bigger risk of failure, in that the mystery ingredients of its success might not be able to be recaptured. Top Gear Australia is a good case in point here too. It looks and sounds like the British Top Gear, but the magic of this program is the personalities, not the cars. And it is those personalities who are missing in action on the Australian version.

Airing on HBO the imperative for Summer Heights High to be a ratings bonanza is perhaps not as strong, as it was for Kath and Kim which aired on NBC. Network television tends to look for immediate commercial success in terms of ratings, whereas cable broadcasters like HBO have more room for programs like Summer Heights High which are critically adored but need not necessarily attract a huge mainstream audience. Perhaps Kath and Kim (particularly in its original Australian version) would have been more successful if it had been given an opportunity on HBO or another similar station.

I think it’s too early in his career to label Chris Lilley a genius. However, if he continues to make such incisive satirical black comedy he may turn out to be the modern day equivalent of someone like Barry Humphries, as he builds up a body of comic work and comic characters. I hope he does because his powers of observation and ability to inhabit the characters he creates is something very special and original and not seen on Australian television for some time.

Successful or not, what I think is positive about programs like Kath and Kim and Summer Heights High trying their luck in the American market is that the awareness of the Australian television industry is being raised, particularly in such a lucrative and large market as the US. We have some wonderfully creative comedians working in television and the more opportunities they are given both here and overseas, the better it is for the future of the industry, and for us as TV viewers. That being said, I really hope American audiences are as fascinated by Mr G, J’aime and Jonah as we have been.

And final thought for the day: I'm glad Lilley resisted the lure of the American remake.

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