Already a sensation in its native land of Australia (where the show is the best-selling TV-DVD in the country’s history), it’s probably best to go into “Summer Heights High” knowing as little about its various accolades as possible. After all, “Kath and Kim” was also supposed to be an Australian critical darling, and while that may be true of the original series, the American remake starring Molly Shannon and Selma Blair is so terribly unfunny that we can’t imagine that’s the case. That isn’t to say that “Summer Heights High” isn’t completely deserving of its rave reviews, because even though it isn’t technically produced by HBO, it could very well become the network’s surprise hit of the fall season.
Best described as a mockumentary in the style of a Christopher Guest film (though it’ll also draw comparisons to the BBC version of the “The Office” for its awkward brand of humor), the series stars creator Chris Lilley as three different subjects of a high school documentary. There’s Jonah, a foul-mouthed, Polynesian delinquent who enjoys break dancing; private school mean girl Ja’mie, who’s at Summer Heights on a student exchange program; and Mr. G, the school’s eccentric drama teacher known for such unconventional productions as “IKEA: The Musical” and “Tsunamarama ’06,” a disaster musical scored entirely to the music of Bananarama.
Discussions will no doubt take place over which of Lilley’s characters are their favorites, but the great thing about “Summer Heights High” is that they’re all so unique that it’s virtually impossible to favor just one. It’s actually a little scary at just how good Lilley is (especially as Ja’mie, whose girlish mannerisms are spot-on), and his work here is nothing short of genius. Lilley isn’t the only star of the show, however, and though a majority of the other characters are played by actors, the fact that they’ve been mixed into a real-life environment (the series was shot at an actual Australian school) really helps the validity of the documentary style.
“Little Britain USA” may be the one getting all the press of the two imports, but by the time “Summer Heights High” has finished its eight-episode run (beginning on November 9th at 10:30 PM), it’ll likely be the bigger success. It’s just a shame that there won’t be a second season to look forward to, because not only would it be an excellent addition to HBO’s annual line-up, but the opportunity for an hour-long team-up with “Flight of the Conchords” is almost too good to pass up. That shouldn’t deter you from tuning in, though. “Summer Heights High” is one of the most original comedies I’ve ever seen, and if it accomplishes anything during it’s time on HBO, it’ll be to transform Chris Lilley into the next Ricky Gervais.