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Lunacy trumps funny in Lilley’s Netflix effort (Review) — 2/5

2 STARS OUT OF 5 (Want to know exactly what our star ratings mean? Check out our explanations here.)

Lunatics is a 10-episode series that was released on Netflix on April 19th, created by and starring Australian actor and comedian Chris Lilley. While it has its moments, overall it’s not particularly cohesive and it doesn’t deliver on the humor it promises initially.

Lilley first saw mainstream success in America with We Can Be Heroes: Finding The Australian of the Year, co-written with Ryan Shelton. In the six-part series on the ABC, Lilley portrayed several fictitious characters nominated for the real Australian of the Year Award; the show was awarded a number of Australian and European accolades, while also drawing criticism for its racial humor. Lilley followed up with the overwhelmingly successful Summer Heights High, his second mockumentary show, which ran on ABC TV in 2007 and served as my introduction to Lilley. In the series, Lilley played the series’ three main characters. Playing fewer characters allowed Lilley to hone his writing. The show felt less forced and much more funny than previous (or future) works.

In 2013 Lilley announced in announced he would be reviving Summer Heights High character Jonah Takalua, a Tongan youth, in new show Jonah from Tonga. The show ran for about 6 episodes, depending on what channel and in what nation, before being pulled following widespread protests from Tongan people outraged with the brownface portrayal of Jonah by Chris Lilley, who is white.

Chris Lilley (far left) has received much criticism for his 2014 brownface portrayal of a Tongan youth

In March of 2018, when Lilley announced Lunatics, the response from critics and fans was a sort of hopeful anxiety. Lunatics continues Lilley’s commitment to the mockumentary style. It explores the lives and narrative of six eccentric characters, again all played by Lilley, and their experiences over the course of a month.

Since so many critiques of the show seem to be slanted based on how viewers feel about the creator, I want to look at the content of Lunatics as a stand alone. Although I was previously, and then stopped being, a fan of Lilley, I had high hopes for the show. While several of the characters are initially quite funny, Lilley’s goal of creating layered personalities is overshadowed by the frenetic insanity he infuses them with. While early episodes show cohesion, after episode 4 I really couldn’t follow the characters; the frenzied nature became overwhelming to the point of becoming detrimental.

For a show with only 10 episodes, it’s hard to give a good review when less than half contain story continuity and the last two episodes feel like several jokes thinly run together. Overall, I think if you’re a fan of Lilley it may be worth watching a few episodes; perhaps you will find some gems that I didn’t. However, if this is to be your introduction to Lilley and his work, skip it. Earlier projects had far more consistency and will be more worth your time than this latest effort, which has failed to charm even fans of earlier work.

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