Before the new year rolls in and Girls returns to get everyone upset about nudity, and Looking horrifies/delights all of gay America, HBO is premiering two new comedies that aren't likely to get much attention. Or as much, at least. Which is a shame! Because both series, Ja'mie: Private School Girl and Getting On , are charming shows well worth a watch. Though, for very different reasons.
Those familiar with Chris Lilley's earlier series Summer Heights High will of course recognize Ja'mie, the vain and hilariously self-serving teenage girl (played by Lilley) who, in Summer Heights High, switched from a posh private school in Sydney to a local public school as some sort of anthropological excuse to brag about the fabulousness of private school. As the title of Lilley's new series would suggest, Ja'mie is now back at the tony Hillford school for girls, reigning as the senior queen bee and chasing a cute rugby player from the boys school down the road. Once again, Lilley nails the cadence and dialect of a certain type of teenage girl, giving Ja'mie just enough truth to keep her mostly out of cartoon territory. The world around Ja'mie is also nicely textured and real-seeming, both adults and actual teenagers all giving performances that hardly seem like acting. Lilley is good at striking the balance between high comedy and naturalism, and at its best moments Ja'mie hums with the same harmony of silliness and believability that was so delightfully present in Summer Heights High.
Ja'mie is still an inferior effort, though. I miss the culture clash between Ja'mie and the public school bogans she so condescendingly despised and dismissed. Now that she's on her own turf, her meanness seems less a terrible allergic reaction to a culture not her own and more like downright villainy. Lilley takes Ja'mie's awfulness a bit too far here, especially in interactions with her mother. I just don't believe, no matter how spoiled she may be, that Ja'mie's cruelty toward this poor lady would be tolerated the way that it is. It also helped that SHH had two other main characters balancing out the tone. At a point, spending all of our time with Ja'mie gets to be a bit much. Lilley's teen satire is still wonderfully sharp and observant, but with so much new space to fill, he tends to stray into exaggeration at times. Still, Private School Girl is a breezily entertaining, decidedly oddball (the sight of Lilley, a nearly 40-year-old man, playing a teenage girl flirting with a teenage boy is so peculiar that it's both hysterical and disturbing) lark.
Coming in at a much quieter frequency is Getting On, a new comedy set in an extended care facility in Los Angeles, specifically the elderly women's floor. The series stars TV comedy vets Niecy Nash and Alex Borstein as nurses and Laurie Metcalf as the reluctant medical director of the floor. The series, based on a British sitcom of the same name, traffics in a soft-spoken kind of comedy that I'm tempted to call "gentle," but that would belie the series's finely honed edge. The comedy, while played at a low pitch, can nonetheless be pretty blue — in the second episode, the delightful June Squibb says just about every non-PC thing a person can say, but the show gets away with it because it's operating so smartly and subtly with both head and heart, even when things get a bit raunchy. There's a current of sensitivity running through Getting On (and a wistfulness -- we are dealing with ailing old people here, after all) that's remarkably appealing.
The writing is terrific (the series was adapted for U.S. television by writing partners/husbands Mark V. Olsen and Will Scheffer, taking a big left turn from Big Love here) and the performances are, across the board, marvelous. Nash, whose character is new to the job, exudes good-natured decency; she's a wry observer of the dumb stuff happening around her but is never cruel, or all that judgmental, even. Metcalf is, well, Laurie Metcalf. Playing a tightly wound, ambitious but thwarted doctor seemingly holding onto her sanity by only a few threads, Metcalf is a wonder of pained expressions and loaded delivery. And she's pretty convincing as a doctor! Her curt, efficient bedside manner looks and sounds just right. The real surprise here, for me anyway, is Borstein, the MadTV and Family Guy staple who turns in a deeply shaded, thoroughly human performance as a nurse who's fallen on hard emotional times. She's the "saddest" character on the show in the way that sad women are often played for comedy, but in Borstein's hands, she's entirely credible, and thus sympathetic. All three actresses do deft and delicate work together, creating an easy flow that gives Getting On the same lived-in feel as the British The Office had in its best episodes.
I'd urge you to watch both series when they premiere on Sunday night, but if you can only watch one, I think you should go with Getting On. Coming in just under the wire, it's one of my favorite shows this year.