Given the title, it's ironic the two best characters are softly-spoken women in Chris Lilley's latest mockumentary. A gifted impersonator (and the funniest thing to come out of Australia since, um, Steve Irwin?) Lilley's Angry Boys is his biggest project to date: a HBO co-production with an international flavour to proceedings. Unfortunately, that scope comes at the expense of the focus that informed his previous work We Can Be Heroes and Summer Heights High. It's hard to tell what the point of Angry Boys is, basically, beyond enabling Lilley to spread his creative wings and play a wider range of characters than ever before—albeit with varying degrees of success...
Wisely introduced over the course of the first four episodes, we meet the show's oddballs: 17-year-old Daniel and his hearing-impaired twin brother Nathan, who spend their days antagonizing each other on their family's remote South Australian farm; juvenile detention supervisor Ruth "Gran" Sims, a matriarchal figure to the teenage offenders she makes wear superhero pajamas to bed; dictatorial Japanese mother Jen Okazaki, who's micromanaged her American-born son's life to turn him into a gay skateboarding superstar in Tokyo; one-time champion surfer Blake Oakfield, a 38-year-old man who spends his days embroiled in a childish turf war against a rival surfing clique; and African-American rapper S.mouse, who became an overnight sensation with hit song "Slap My Elbow" but is struggling to maintain his embryonic fame due to his negligible talent and irrepressible egotism.
There's a lot of like about Angry Boys—in Lilley's excellent performances, its simmering outrageousness, and the slick production values—but there's also an unshakeable feeling that it's broader than his previous work (more profanity, lots of toilet humour), doesn't contain as many laugh-out-loud moments as you'd expect, and a few of the characters just don't feel worthy of the attention. In particular, there's little about surfer dude Blake that justifies spending more than an episode on him, as the joke he's a man-child clutching to a reputation earned in adolescence, ran out of steam inside of the half-hour he was introduced in. And the character of S.mouse doesn't offer much beyond obvious satirical targets (he's an immature young man called Shwayne from a privileged family, not a street kid from the ghetto), a few broad swipes at fleeting fame, and the crude inanity of many rap songs.
That leaves just four character to carry the weight of the show on their shoulders. Fortunately, they're strong enough to keep Angry Boys afloat. Daniel and Nathan are warring twins whose horseplay (cruel pranks, shouting, rude hand gestures) will be familiar if you have brothers—and despite the fact poking fun at deaf people isn't clever, Lilley finds some amusing takes on it. It helps that a key part is knowing how Daniel is secretly upset his withdrawn brother might be leaving home to attend a school for the deaf. But I especially enjoy Lilley's female tyrants in Gran (an upbeat, finicky guinea pig lover who demonstrates a nonchalantly cruel streak when dealing with teens), and Jen (the ultimate "pushy mum" who's brainwashed and bullied her son Tim into becoming little more than a lucrative product). The latter's such a soft-spoken menace that you feel genuinely upset for her long-suffering boy—who has to pretend he only speaks pigeon-English and is attracted to men, while endorsing "Gay Style" tie-in merchandise that includes penis-shaped drink bottles.
Overall, Angry Boys is good fun and showcases Lilley's talent for character acting very well. Like his British idols Catherine Tate and Julia Davis, he disappears into each role incredibly well, despite having a recognizably oval face and pursed lips—although the black-face on S.mouse can't help but call attention to the artifice. It's just a shame his latest spoof doesn't click as a cohesive project. The title isn't pertinent (half the characters are female, most aren't "angry" per se), and Lilley probably should have considered performing less characters of better quality, because there are some here who feel largely extraneous or based on thin jokes.
It wouldn't be so much of a problem if Angry Boys was as short and snappy as the eight-part Summer Heights High, but the likes of Blake and S.mouse aren't deserving of return visits over 12-weeks. Maybe that's part of the reason BBC Three chose to air the show in double-bills for a few weeks, to combat a feeling of fatigue? Still, Lilley's show knocks spots off the misfiring Little Britain USA (itself an influence, noticeably with the style of opening titles), simply because it's not catchphrase-driven and tells stories instead of recycling one-joke sketches. That makes it somewhat unpredictable every week, as your investment in the characters (even the weaker ones) grows deeper over time. I certainly look forward to each new episode, as it's a pleasurable viewing experience... if not quite as hilarious or incisive as it should have been.
written by Chris Lilley / directed by Chris Lilley, Stuart McDonald & Jeffrey Walker / ABC1, BBC Three, HBO