Lunatics is classic Chris Lilley—for better and worse. I could give you the synopsis—the Australian comedian’s new 10-part mockumentary series on Netflix chronicles the mundane day-to-day lives of six eccentrics, all played by Lilley. They include Becky, a seven-foot-tall twin starting college and Gavin, the vulgar preteen heir to an English estate.
I could tell you about the show’s sweeping production value. Shot like a high-budget Netflix documentary, Lunatics features gorgeous aerial shots of homes and landscapes in Australia’s Gold Coast. Each setting feels lived in. The home of an ex-adult movie star turned “collector” named Joyce is claustrophobic enough for Hoarders. Likewise, retail veteran Keith, who is physically in love with his cash register, looks like he walked straight out of a Buckle store circa 2002.
I might even praise Lilley’s already impressive acting chops. Forever a character actor, he once again excels at seamlessly making his caricatures feel real. Quentin, an adult fuckboy failing to successfully take over his family’s real estate business, immediately recalls the likes of DJ Pauly D or James Kennedy. In fact, it wouldn’t be hard to imagine Quentin mugging it up in the background of Vanderpump Rules.
But ultimately, any interest in Lunatics depends entirely on how you feel about its creator.
Some find Lilley repulsive. In 2017, the comedian remixed his track “Squashed N*gga” which originated in his 2011 Australian mockumentary Angry Boys. On the show, Lilley wore blackface and a curly wig as one of his most notorious characters S.mouse, a black rapper living in Calabasas, California. He donned the racist costume again for his remix, which he posted to Instagram a day after a driver was acquitted of manslaughter after killing Elijah Doughty, a 14-year-old indigenous Australian, in a traffic collision. Lilley apologized after swift backlash, saying the video wasn’t “connected in any way to current news stories.”
For others, Lilley is a comedy titan. His best show to date, Summer Heights High, and its spinoffs Ja’mie: Private School Girl and Jonah from Tonga garnered international acclaim and pickup stateside for his peculiar, nuanced characters. For his work, Lilley has won five Logie Awards, Australia’s version of an Emmy.
Lunatics functions as a career culmination for Lilley. While none of his most infamous characters appear in the series, he is at his best and worst this time around. Lilley clearly has a keen eye for what makes great reality TV so successful. His real-life absurdism is “dope as fuck,” as his pubescent character Gavin would say. But the genre has evolved since the early 2000s, and the sensationalism of Kate Gosselin and Honey Boo Boo type characters is dated.
It doesn’t help that Lilley is just as out of touch as his characters. Lunatics’ best character also happens to be its most controversial. Jana is a South African pet psychic to the stars. She’s the character most believable as TV fodder (looking at you, Hollywood Medium), but Lilley uses a big, poofy afro and a dark tan as part of the costume. The blackface accusations have once again returned.
Show producer Laura Waters claims Lilley is portraying “a white woman with huge ’70s style curly hair.” While believable—Lilley looks eerily like Richard Simmons when in character—it’s simply a poor costuming choice. At this point in his career, Lilley should know better than to toy with even the most ambiguous references to cultural appropriation.
Then again, that’s Lilley’s signature. He seems to believe that portraying people society looks down on will force viewers to reflect on their own prejudices; however, it’s starting to look more like he simply seizes the chance to be offensive under the guise of satire. Sure, the countless real-life douchebags who serve as inspiration for the misogynistic Quentin do say “faggot” repeatedly, but Lilley doesn’t have to follow suit.
If Lilley wants to continue with his searing mockumentaries, he’d do well to modernize them. Throughout the show, I kept asking myself what the point of all this buffoonery is. Lilley isn’t exploring new terrain. If he took on an Instagram influencer or the white male late-night hosts unsure what to do with their privilege, than maybe there’d be so relevant humor. Better yet, he should satirize the growing trend of aging male comics who fear PC culture. Then, finally, we might get an idea of who Lilley really is.