As a self-appointed comedy buff, I’m usually the guy advising my friends on quality viewing pleasures. I say this pridefully, not egotistically. However, it's more than little shameful that I had never watched Chris Lilley’s We Can Be Heroes: Finding the Australian of the Year, his genius critically acclaimed mockumentary series for the Australian Broadcasting Channel from 2005. He then hit in the U.S. with the equally inspired Summer Heights High, imported by HBO, and most recently Angry Boys, which was also gloriously released in stores with this set on December 4. So obviously HBO deserves a right pat on the back for importing such fresh comedy, and also, still, for The Wire.
I think I know why I avoided We Can Be Heroes years ago. The central conceit is Lilley performing as six different and distinct characters, five of which are in the running to be finalists for Australian of the Year, an annual competition to find the most reputable citizens from each state. As someone who barely cared for the multi-character projects from Eddie Murphy or Martin Lawrence, or even the duo from Little Britain, it’s easy to see why I didn’t pick We Can Be Heroes Up. The main flow of thought behind comedies like these is escalatory; each character and situation has to be wackier and zanier than the one before it. And that shit can get old really quick.
Thankfully, Lilley maintains a subtler approach rooted in the idiosyncratic everyman and everywoman. Even while some aspects of these characters’ lives are eccentric and over-the-top, we are watching their stories being told in capsule, rather than merely seeing a series of eventful occurrences happen to them. It speaks highly of his commitment to packing each performance with relatable nuances, even those coming off as aggravating or offensive. As the sixth episode ended and I realized these characters were essentially gone from my life, I was saddened. I wouldn’t invite any of them over for coffee, but taking their company for a half-hour at a time never get too uncomfortable, even when Daniel called Nathan a fag every fifteen seconds.
So, who are these wonderful lumps of funny? Queensland’s Phil Olivetti was a cop until he saved a group of kids from a runaway Bouncy Castle, and became a self-promoting hero. His shortsighted ego has completely drowned out his honesty and humility, with a family who quietly suffers through his dreams of public speaking. Perth’s Pat Mullins is a stereotypical suburban wife whose one leg is shorter than the other, which caused mobility problems until she trained herself to roll across the ground at high speeds. Melbourne’s Ricky Wong is a Chinese physics student who is more interested in developing his musical theater skills rather than finishing his PhD, which goes against everything his father stands for.
Lilley is also adept at mimicking the futile life of the teenager. Sydney’s Ja’ime King is a 16-year-old girl whose ego, along with a slew of talents and philanthropic notions, is barely contained within her body. The fictional town of Dunt, South Australia is the small town home of 17-year-old Daniel Sims, an insult-spewing Xbox addict who is donating one of his eardrums to his spastic twin brother Nathan, who lost his hearing years earlier.
Each character has been nominated for their audacious or charitable actions, and these serve as the central focus for the documentary crew following them, but of course it’s the bizarre qualities that they bring to these lofty goals that make them so hilariously fun to watch. Phil hinders his own attempts at any kind of accomplishments, particularly in teaching his son’s scout group, and his failures gain no sympathy due to his impossibility to objectively view himself. Pat’s long-term goal is rolling from Perth to Ululu, and her husband Terry becomes her coach, training her for all the common “rolling from place to place” hindrances one might face. Her husband goes so far as to build a “dingo cage” to cover her as she rolls. Despite her champion qualities, Ja’ime’s sponsoring of 85 Sudanese children is less charitable than a reason for Ja’ime to make herself feel better by insensitively “helping” out a poor, different race of people. Ricky Wong takes the lead role in an offensively farcical play about the Aborigines (“Aborigi-me, Aborigi-you!”). Daniel and Nathan barely get along, as Nathan prefers to stay quiet and flip cameras off, while Daniel slams him with homosexual slurs while being disinterested in most other things, much like adolescent males tend to do. It would all mean nothing if Lilley wasn’t the invested performer he is.
I’ll admit the comedy isn’t for anyone who doesn’t enjoy the dry wit of personality observation, but for the rest of us, it’s a relief that the U.S. is finally getting this to own. The episodes could use commentaries, as the half-hour “Behind the Scenes” is a bunch of shots taken as the show was being filmed. It’s interesting in its own right, but features nothing of Lilley speaking about the project as a whole. It’s amazing to see the girls’ choir sing the theme, however. Plus, Ricky Wong’s performance of “Didgeridoo “ on the Logie Awards was on par with something akin to an elaborate Jimmy Kimmel bit. Rounding out the extras on this slighted set is the “Deleted Scenes and Outtakes” portion, which is admittedly large and great, as each character gets at least fifteen new or alternate takes, and many are just as funny as scenes that stayed in.
Despite being just six episodes, or perhaps because of it, We Can Be Heroes is a better middle-class comedy than America has known for years, combining the humdrumness of an ‘80s sitcom with the intelligent wit of a modern one. I found it virtually faultless, and will probably be on my way to Best Buy in search of Angry Boys as soon as I close my laptop. We can be consumers as well as heroes.
Distributor:HBO Home VIdeo
Starring:Chris Lilley, Jennifer Byrne
Directed by:Matt Saville
Created by:Chris Lilley