If you’ve seen Summer Heights High, you know Ja’mie (née Jamie) King. You also know her if you’ve watched Clueless, Mean Girls, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, or any other high school comedy of the past forever. Ja’mie’s a composite character, what happens when Cher Horowitz, Gretchen Wieners, and Cordelia Chase fuse personalities and possess the body of a 39-year-old man. Creator Chris Lilley’s finely honed caricature of the High School Popular Girl was Summer Heights High‘s strongest player, with flamboyant drama teacher Mr. G a close second and troubled bully Jonah an extremely distant third. But while Ja’mie: Private School Girl finally gives its namesake protagonist the spotlight, it also reveals that for all her self-absorption, Ja’mie works better when she’s sharing the stage.
Private School Girl follows its heroine through her final three months of high school as she and her indistinguishable pack of lackeys deal with a laundry list of rich-girl problems. With her public school misadventure behind her, Ja’mie’s free to focus on what’s really important: what university she’ll attend after spending a gap year doing aid work in Africa; getting her crush to accept her friend request; winning a school-wide award for being “really good at everything.” Not that the plot really matters. At the end of the day, the show is a thinly veiled excuse for Lilley to have a ball with Ja’mie’s milk-throwing histrionics and rich-bitch pronouncements like, “I know how to text and drive, I’m not a fucking idiot!”
Such GIF-able moments are sprinkled throughout the miniseries, explaining why Tumblr took to Private School Girl weeks before it landed on our shores (though HBO airs the first episode on Sunday, it’s been on the air in Australia since late October). And the show isn’t without its moments. Lilley’s a gifted physical comedian, pulling off dance moves that make Miley’s VMA performance look like the Bolshoi Ballet with gusto, with a talent for taking an age-old archetype to its logical extreme. But even though Private School Girl succeeds in delivering the occasional laugh, by the end of the second episode it’s painfully obvious that 24 minutes of uninterrupted screen time stretches Ja’mie’s appeal way too thin.
The punchlines in Private School Girl begin to repeat themselves with alarming speed, crossing over from running gag to recycled joke around the time Ja’mie shrieks her umpteenth “Illy!” Ja’mie may be funny, but she’s also fairly one-note, a fact that becomes especially apparent when she’s the only fully developed character on the show. Lilley’s refusal to give Ja’mie anyone besides her complacent friends and family and a nearly mute love interest to riff off of means she’s forced to stand on her own. And unfortunately, there’s not too much to stand on besides exaggerated teen girl tropes and a host of semi-ironic -isms.
Those two bedrock elements of the show’s humor work in limited doses, but the more Lilley relies on them, the more painful they become to watch. The endless cracks at high school girls’ behavior, from obsessing over friend requests to comparing body image issues, have little substance to them beyond “Aren’t teen girls dumb?,” a message that feels especially uncomfortable coming from a middle-aged man. And though Ja’mie’s racism and homophobia are clearly meant to be the butt of the show’s humor rather than the humor itself, having Ja’mie use “lesbian” as the most vicious insult in her arsenal, episode after episode, does little to clarify that distinction.
Back in Summer Heights High, Ja’mie didn’t just have two other Lilley characters with whom to share the burden of carrying an entire series. She also had a much more interesting premise for her story line: the fish-out-of-water concept of placing a snobby private school girl among the great unwashed. Here, we see Ja’mie in her natural habitat, an idea that’s promising on its face but ends up sucking the story dry of any meaningful conflict, stripping the character of much of her comedic value. Watching her cajole her parents into throwing a party is funny enough (her preferred method of persuasion is gnawing on her South African father’s shoulder), but it’s nowhere near as hysterical as Lucille Bluth-worthy stunts like attempting to charge $450 for school dance tickets.
Without either equally absurd cast mates or uncooperative peers with whom to butt heads, Private School Girl raises the question of just why a Ja’mie-centric spinoff was necessary. We already know Ja’mie as a rich, spoiled snob ready to bulldoze her way to popularity. So why craft a whole new show around her unless there’s more to add to the character? Summer Heights High wrapped up Ja’mie’s story at its natural endpoint, leaving her semester at the namesake school armed with some perspective and at least a tiny bit of personal growth. Private School Girl is long on blatant fan service and short on actual entertainment value — exactly the opposite of what a successful spin-off should be.