There is always tentative excitement when a beloved character of one series branches into their own show. On one hand, it will give the character a chance to graduate and stand-out; on the other hand, it’s hard to tell if that character will flourish in the writers’ newly constructed environment. Or even, as in this case, make us laugh as hard. Chris Lilley’s Ja’mie King, the Australian teen queen so fierce you’d think she handwrote Regina George’s playbook, has made such a rocky transition in Ja’mie: Private School Girl, a joint production between the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and HBO.
Ja’mie first appeared in Lilley’s original series We Can Be Heroes and then again in Summer Heights High where she catwalked along a fish-out-of-water story: a privileged priss thrust into the murky fish tank of public school. This contrast and struggle gave Ja’mie humanity. There was a sympathetic element to how mean she could be because her worst nightmare was to be in a place where she wasn’t adored. It was endearing to watch her tearfully apologize to her classmates after realizing she had insulted herself into isolation. But in Private School Girl, Ja’mie unabashedly terrorizes her turf at Hillford School for Girls. Though there are some standard Lilley laughs to be had – Ja’mie preparing a lasciviously choreographed dance to honor Hillford’s oldest alumni, for example – her brutal zings and made-up lingo leave us mostly numb to her incessant nastiness.
Ja’mie’s bullying encompasses loud classism, racism, body-shaming and homophobic slurs. In insulting her victims she vacillates from one ‘ism’ to another. A confrontation with Lauren, one of Hillford’s “boarders,” or girls who board at the school, she goes from calling her “rural” and “weird” to “fat,” and then to calling the entire group lesbians. Her final creative and horribly offensive sign off is “Why don’t you go f**kin’ fist yourself!” Here, Lilley has defaulted to a lazy comedic tactic of having characters simply spout offensive remarks so viewers will either reel in shock or laugh/cringe at the antihero’s bad behavior.
While Summer Heights High focused, individually, on other characters who were funny and had depth, Ja’mie is the epicenter of PSG. Characters orbiting Ja’mie offer no resistance to her reign of terror. Even Lauren, who despite looking thoroughly unimpressed with Ja’mie, has little dialogue beyond a “Well, you’ve got small tits” retort to Ja’mie’s harassment. Other characters seem to exist either to adore Ja’mie or to acquiesce to her raging id.
A scene where Ja’mie is driving while texting and alternately screaming at her cowering mother and frustrated sister is almost unwatchable. A glimmer of future conflict appears in Mitchell, a year 10 boy who becomes the object of Ja’mie’s affection. But in the premier episode he is virtually mute.
Ja’mie’s secret comedic weapon lies in the fact that Lilley does the character in drag. She gives the term “teen queen” a double entendre. The act of drag has always served as a campy reminder of the holes in established gender roles – in this case, conventional femininity. And, as Lilley is well aware, no one displays a rawer, more misguided carnival of femininity and sexuality quite like teenage girls. Lilley playing Ja’mie is why Ja’mie complaining that the headmaster is always looking at her tits is a punchline. And why her blonde army of sycophants, played by female teenage actors, telling Ja’mie that she is the most “quiche,” (Ja’mie’s made up term for “hotter than hot”) out of all of them is something to laugh at.
Private School Girl has hope if, beyond the premiere episode, Lilley weaves in characters who can offset Ja’mie, challenge her, and hopefully humble her. Should Lilley let her run rampant, focusing on her next playground slur instead of building an elastic room for his monster to bounce around in, the show may not be as likely to succeed.