Chris Lilley’s Lunatic Fringe

Even Second-Tier Lilley is Still an Artist At Work

Lunatics, Chris Lilley‘s first multi-character show since 2011’s Angry Boys, certainly has its charms, but it feels tempered compared to his earlier work. The first episode gets off to a slow start, with nary a laugh to be found. Lilley uses the whole episode to establish the clockwork of the series, because the thematic premise of “lunacy” does little to serve as a glue for the various scenarios.

And there are, sadly, no characters who grab you right off the bat, like Ja’mie or Mr. G. In fact, the show feels almost like the result of an improv game where Lilley made the scenes up by pulling a setting, a vocation and an ability (or disability) out of a bag.

But, as the series wends on, Lilley reveals his mastery. Despite the disparate elements, or perhaps even because of them, he’s able to make you feel deeply for these characters. As with his previous shows, he quickly makes clear you’re never meant to laugh at these people, but rather laugh with them at the outsized absurdity of their individual predicaments.

A Seven-Foot-Tall Freshman Girl and a Millennial With An Enormous Ass

With Lilley, the more ludicrous the visual gag, the more he grounds it in the lived reality of the character.

While she’s no Ja’mie, Becky, the seven-plus-foot-tall college freshman with enormously wide legs, stands out, quite literally. You laugh at the plight of a dorky college freshman who loves crafting and pines after a boy who ignores her, but you never laugh at her giant legs. Lilley plays Becky’s ludicrous height as a real disability. She does her best to be good-natured about her unique needs, but faces a lot of cruelty, and you find yourself rooting for her to find her place in the world (all the while forgetting she’s really a 45-year-old man in a goofy costume).

Chris Lilley’s Quentin, and his huge ass, in Lunatics.

Quintessential millennial real-estate agent Quentin also sports a notable physical feature in the form of an enormous ass that he and his brothers have all inherited from their father, and his father before him. This tremendous tuchus reminds you at every pace of Quentin’s insecurity, despite his outward appearance as the poster child of over-confident white males. It endears you to him.

Outwardly Irritating

The irritation factor is high with 13-year-old Gavin, the foul-mouthed, Cartman-esque future Earl of a British Estate. I find his constant crassness largely displeasing to watch, but only because it reflects the crude posturing of so many real life teenage boys–not unlike Lilley’s past recurring characters Daniel and Nathan Sims. But even as Gavin terrorizes his poor Auntie and the woman who uses their stables with an endless barrage of harassment, his love and encouragement for his disabled cousin Dylan wins you over in the end.

South African pet psychic Jana Melhoopen-Jonks is also not particularly likable as a person, but it’s fun to watch her charlatanism on full display. Of the bunch, she comes across as the most sociopathic, but you still have empathy for her as she yearns to be with her assistant Kylie and can’t comprehend why she can’t just buy her love.

While some have complained that Lilley is doing brownface for this character, her Dutch-sounding name, absurd levels of privilege, and insistence on the transgendered status of her Afghan Hound Victor/Victoria make her read as 100% kooky white lady to me. One can’t help but wonder how fear of public shaming causes social satirists like Lilley to self-police, even when they insist they won’t be cowed. Still, you have to admire Lilley’s gall to continue doing his shapeshifting character studies at a time when any media that dares to dig into the counterpoints of identity risks setting off the outrage machineNetflix has confirmed that Jana is not a woman of color.

Some Duds in the Mix
Joyce Jeffries, retired porn star and hoarder, in Chris Lilley’s Lunatics.

Cash register-loving fashion retailer Keith Dick and porn star-turned-hoarder Joyce Jeffries, on the other hand, fall flat for me. In both cases, Lilley gives more due to the characters’ zany relationships to objects than their relationships to themselves and the people in their lives. There’s not enough to relate to with either of them.

While Keith’s self-referential store branding provides ample dick jokes (which I’m just immature enough to love), Lilley doesn’t quite stick the landing on Keith’s regression into “objectophilia” and his long-standing extramarital affair with a cash register he calls Karen. Lilley’s shows always have the supporting cast at a 2-3 on the emotive scale so that his hammy central characters can comfortably riff between 6-10. So the tension doesn’t mount properly when everyone around Keith ranges from vaguely nonplussed to lightly ruffled.

Joyce’s manic demonstration of all the oddities in her collection gets old pretty quickly, as Lilley never adequately elucidates her backstory. One has no idea when she began to hoard or how this behavior relates to her former life as a porn star. This lack of clarity would be fine, except there’s also little sense of why her best friend Rhonda remains so faithfully devoted to her or what she thinks of Joyce’s clearly irregular mental health.

Even though I found Joyce’s scenes repetitive, I’ll be damned if I didn’t tear up when Lilley forces her to reckon with the unsustainability of her life. The underlying pain beneath the whimsy bubbles to the surface. Even this thinly-manifested character achieves catharsis.

Deeply Empathetic

This is the true magic of Chris Lilley. His appropriation and transmutation of human suffering has always triggered some people.  But comedy, as they say, is tragedy plus time, and pain is the most essential component of tragedy. An alternate title for Lunatics could be “People in Pain,” and Chris Lilley has a gift for embodying such people with their hopes and dreams and competing imperfections.

As a longtime fan, I’m grateful Lilley has turned out a new set of original characters, even if they’re somewhat de-fanged in comparison to his channelings of yore. With Lunatics, he continues to maintain the balance of silliness and true heart that has always made his work emotionally compelling beyond simply ha-ha funny.

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Sarah Zucker

Sarah Zucker is a writer and artist based in Los Angeles. She runs YoMeryl, an Art + Animation studio, with her partner Bronwyn Lundberg, and produces curatorial projects as The Current Sea. She is a Jeopardy! Champion.

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