Sunday, September 14, 2008

The Nominees

The Nominees is the series Chris Lilley made before Summer Heights High and is currently showing Thursdays on FX.
It goes without saying that it's not as good as the masterpiece that was Summer Heights but it's still one of the highlights of my week.
The original title used in Australia better explains the subject: "We Can Be Heroes: Finding The Australian of the Year."
Chris Lilley plays all five nominees.

Coincidentally, a new British mock-doc, The Cup, is showing on Thursdays on BBC2, about a junior football team. The comparison is interesting because The Cup has been widely panned by the critics and is indeed a supersize turkey.
There have been several real documentaries about junior football teams over the years - more specifically, about the obsessive parents of the players. These have all been much funnier than The Cup. I can still remember one overweight father who did a bizarre sideways dance up and down the touchline in one of these programmes and who seemed in danger of an imminent heart attack.

There are two lessons to be drawn from the comparison.
The first is that a mock-doc has to get the 'grammar' and style of the documentary format exactly right. Chris Lilley and his production team do this brilliantly. The Cup does not.
The second is that the person playing the lead character(s) has to be surrounded by outstanding actors who can talk to camera in a naturalistic way without appearing to be working from a script. Again, Chris Lilley's ensemble are brilliant at this and you'll often see them hesitating and interrupting each other as 'real people' do on television.

Unlike Summer Heights High, The Nominees has a voice-over and this perfectly captures the cliche-ridden banality of documentary narration. I laugh as much at the voice-over as anything else in the series:

"While the family celebrate the success of the operation, Daniel still waits for Nathan to thank him for giving up his eardum."

"The Chinese Musical Theatre Group's production of 'Indigeridoo' opens in two weeks and has run into trouble."

"If the Dingo cage works, Pat will be one step closer to fulfilling her dream."

All credit to Jennifer Byrne for getting the slow, deadpan intonation exactly right.

I haven't space to describe all the 'nominees'. But Phil Olivetti, a former police hero retired on medical grounds, stands out for his similarity to Alan Partridge. Indeed, you could say that Chris Lilley is the Australian equivalent to Steve Coogan for his ability to create convincing characters.
Like Alan Partridge, Phil Olivetti is stupid, self-obsessed and jaw-droppingly tactless. Quizzing some dinner guests on why they have no children, he remarks that his brother-in-law has a low sperm count, followed by a knowing "hmmm."
He gives a staggeringly mis-judged talk to some local cub scouts before showing them how to deal with an emergency situation, a boy trapped under a fallen tree. Unfortunately, the boy really does become trapped and crushed under the tree and has to be taken to hospital. Not Phil's fault, of course. He simply chose the wrong boy for the demonstration. His son had always told him that boy was a 'wuss.'
He's a well-established type of comedy character: blissfully unaware of his own stupidity, incompetence and crassness. But done well, it's a formula that has always worked, from Pooter to Partridge and right back to many of Shakespeare's characters.

I must also mention Daniel and Nathan (pictured), twin brothers who live on a farm in the fictional 'Dunt' in South Australia. They can be regarded as forerunners of Jonah in Summer Heights High. Chris Lilley seems particularly good at portraying teenage boys.
Daniel is donating one of his eardrums to the deaf and retarded Nathan, hence his nomination for an award.
As always with Chris Lilley, there's a lot going on below the comedy surface. In this case, it's mixed motives for acts of altruism. Daniel thinks he might have more success with girls if he has a disability himself. Apparently girls are quite indulgent towards Nathan, even if he does follow them along the street pretending to masturbate (I think he was pretending; it was filmed in long shot). Daniel is also looking forward to his stay in hospital because he's heard that if you feign incapacity, the nurses will sometimes wash your balls.

But there's also the inability of the two boys to show their affection for each other. The pathos that Chris Lilley unleashed to such devastating effect in the final episode of Summer Heights, was used at the end of this week's episode when Nathan, unable to say thank you to Daniel, eventually sat by a stream and wrote him a poem.
'Sick' was Daniel's only comment on reading it, another piece of emotional repression, before Nathan climbed on to the pillion of the motorcycle, put his arms round Daniel and they rode off across the fields.
Poignant yet understated, this is writing and performing of the highest order.

Maybe it is as good as Summer Heights after all. You'll certainly search in vain for any current British television comedy that has the same intelligence, perception and acute attention to detail.


At 8:27 PM, Blogger Ranting Teacher said...

I was a bit disappointed with "The Nominees" after loving "Summer Heights High" so much. And then fate intervened and my Sky subscription is now cancelled so no more FX channel for me. :(

At 9:17 AM, Blogger Willie Lupin said...

I think the problem is that we are seeing them out of sequence - the masterpiece before the earlier work.
Nominees is much slower and gentler, in some ways more like a real documentary. I find I get more from a second viewing of each episode because there's so much detail to enjoy.
The BBC is said to be in talks about buying Nominees so you may yet get the chance to see the whole series.


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