TV Review: Jonah from Tonga

TV Review: Jonah from Tonga

Jonah’s behaviour towards otherswill provoke parents - but it's clear Lilly wants us to be offended by Jonah’s behaviour and still feel sympathy.

By Mark HadleyWednesday 14 May 2014TV and StreamingReading Time: 3 minutes

When I began working in journalism in the 1980s I remember a furore that surrounded a piece of art by American photographer Andres Serrano. He’d submerged a crucifix in a glass of his own urine and taken a photo.

Of course people were outraged, even revolted but apparently that was the point. Serrano believed his image conveyed the cheapening of religion in contemporary society. This was a valuable lesson if we could take hold of it, so the argument went, and critics were too narrow-minded or culturally bound to understand its true significance. But in the end I think the method overwhelmed the message, and that’s Jonah from Tonga in a nutshell.

Comedian Chris Lilley has become something of an Australian icon in recent years, serving up some of our most cutting pictures of satire – the narcissistic teacher, Mr. G; the destructive career mum Jen Okazaki; and, of course, the spoilt private school girl Ja’mie King. Being taught to laugh at these sorts of self-centred figures has been something of a social service. We can always benefit from learning that we are not as clever, successful or beautiful as we think. However the controversy that dogs Lilley tends to focus on his more down-and-out characters.

In We Could Be Heroes, we were introduced to the foul-mouthed Daniel and Nathan Sims, twins from South Australia who seemed to represent the limited opportunities offered rural kids. In Angry Boys we met the sexualised S’Mouse, a negro rapper struggling to avoid becoming a one-hit-wonder. Distasteful figures that were open to accusations of stereotypes, but were supposed to teach us nonetheless. But these and others pale into comparison next to Jonah Takalua, a violent bully of a Tongan boy who is failing to fit into both is school and his family.

Jonah from Tonga At the end of Summer Heights High Jonah was expelled and sent back to Tonga to get his life on track. But his relatives find his behaviour so challenging that eventually he’s returned to Sydney to attend Holy Cross High School, a Catholic institution his family hopes will instill some self-control. But his ex-army remedial learning teacher Mr Joseph holds out little hope:

“Jonah Takalua, absolute drop kick…he’s virtually illiterate…he’s disrespectful of my authority…he’s 14, thinks he’s 21, thinks he’s a gangster…Will he survive to the end of Year 12? I doubt it, but we’ll give it a red-hot crack. Stranger things have happened.”

Jonah’s behaviour towards younger children and the language he employs towards teachers will provoke any sensible parent. But is he supposed to typify the struggles the children of ethnic migrants face in Australia, particularly those from socially disadvantaged backgrounds or learning difficulties? Its clear Lilly wants us to be offended by Jonah’s behaviour and still feel sympathy. That, like Serrano’s photo, is the point, right?

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But like Serrano’s crucifix, I find myself questioning if there was another way of gaining the same goal without immersing the series in ‘urine’. Jonah’s language is incredibly offensive and members of the Tongan community have publicly rejected it as a representation of their culture. His infantile sexual innuendo might be read as satire by parents but it’s more likely to provide playground ammunition to their children. In fact the outrageous behaviour displayed by Lilley’s Ja’mie King was more celebrated than rejected by online audiences last year, leading me to wonder whether the general viewing audience will actually get the author’s point.

Jonah From Tonga may win comedy awards and the plaudits of more informed critics but I think it’s unlikely to do its core audience any good. The Apostle Paul pointed out to his readers in Galatia that sin would not be content with a small role in our lives: “A little yeast works through the whole batch of dough.”   I think the same holds true for television. The ultimate benefit, however great, is poor consolation for the effect it has on our characters in the here and now. We can’t indulge in racial stereotypes, inappropriate language and the mockery of the down-and-out and plead the value of this art. We can’t dwell on, digest and celebrate ‘black’ because we say it reminds us of ‘white’. It didn’t work for Serrano; it won’t work for Lilley.

Rating: M
Distributor: ABC1

Release Date: Wednesdays, 9:00 PM