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'Jonah From Tonga': Chris Lilley’s Bad Boy Act is Just Bad
August 8, 2014  | By Eric Gould  | 3 comments

Those looking in on Friday night during Bill Maher’s annual summer hiatus will probably be wondering what’s happening when the best HBO can cook up is Chris Lilley’s latest import of brat-hood, Jonah From Tonga. It won’t take long to discover that the story of Jonah Takalua, a troubled and trouble-making 14-year-old Tongan boy, clatters on like a broken washing machine – and supposedly a comedy, it's remarkably missing even one worthwhile laugh.

The thirty-ish Lilley has had a good career in Australia writing and starring in his own mockumentary-style comedies about maladjusted, poorly behaved teens, most notably last fall’s Ja’mie: Private School Girl, where he embodied the lead character, a high school mean girl, in an uncanny physical performance. Jonah… is HBO’s third import of a Lilley series, starting with Angry Boys in 2011, and is a character from Lilley’s Summer Heights High which premiered in Australia in 2007. That also ran in the U.S. on ABC with Lilley performing many of the lead characters in a variety of wigs and getting wide critical acclaim.

Unfortunately, Jonah – a moronic, foul-mouthed tool – was probably one best left in the Lilley toolbox.

In episode one, he’s sent by his outraged father Rocky (Isaia Noa) to live with his uncle on Tonga to perhaps learn some respect for authority and get something out of a more simple life, away from the teenaged distractions of modern life in Australia.

It’s a non-starter. Uncle Mamafu (Tevita Manu), after one of Jonah’s many pranks, grunts to a cousin in their native language. Cousin informs the camera that uncle has said, “Jonah is a f*cking idiot.”

How right he is. Jonah's immediately sent back to his family in Australia. In school, the underachieving Jonah’s only eligible for a vocational-type program where he's leader of his own dumb-ass hip-hop crew, “Fobba-liscious” – with which he hopes to make it to America and get famous singing and dancing.

When Jonah isn’t insulting his sister about her weight, crushing on his art teacher with inappropriate sexual remarks or making racist rants against ethnic school groups, he’s bullying younger kids by trying to make them eat dog poop.

Lucky us. For all the physical nuance that Lilley brought to the spiteful Ja’mie, you could appreciate the teen angst under the mean-spirited invective. Here, Lilley – slathered in skin bronzer and a curly wig –  is painting by the numbers, scene after root canal-like scene, doing the same sort of off-putting fool, but to the tenth power – and you can’t find a shred of humanity piled under all the idiotic mouthing off.

The difference between Jonah and say, another HBO pariah – Danny McBride’s washed up major league pitcher Kenny Powers in East Bound and Down – is simple. Lilley’s character might comment on peer pressure and suburban kids concocting an inauthentic hip-hop life. But McBride, similarly mocking American jock culture with Powers’s alpha-blustering malapropisms, actually got to a few outrageously funny lines each episode. Lilley’s quick with a cartload of dick jokes and clearly little else.

Jonah From Tonga premieres on HBO, Friday, 10 p.m., ET with two back-to-back episodes and has a six-episode run. You’ll have to get all the way to episode four to see Jonah get a few of his just rewards but by then you’ll be so bludgeoned senseless with his rotten apple schtick you won’t care. Or maybe you’re the most ardent Chris Lilley fan and you will.

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I'm really disappointed in Jonah. I absolutely LOVED Summer Heights High--I thought Lilley's adolescent girl and even Jonah were spot on. I have taught middle school, and I've had kids like these. But so far, "Jonah from Tonga" is a bit of a slog--like you said, "a cartload of dick jokes and clearly little else." Too bad.
Aug 16, 2014   |  Reply
John Door
Thank you for saying what I was thinking. Lots in Australia feel the same but for years were told were just not sophisticated enough to understand Lilley's complex satire. Not only does the Emperor have no clothes, he's also leaving a trail of ugliness behind him. Enough already.
Aug 9, 2014   |  Reply
Jason Gacek
Summer Heights High was the first Lilley series to air on HBO. It originally aired on ABC (Australian Broadcast Company)--not the American ABC. Jonah is thus the fourth Lilley series to air on HBO.
Aug 8, 2014   |  Reply
Corrections noted. Thanks, Jason. –EG
Aug 9, 2014
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