I know, I know, you probably think “I have to watch television for work” is the dictionary definition of First World Problems, and maybe you’re right. (I’m going to say “property taxes plus I watch TV for work” but we don’t need to nitpick.) The truth? It can get to you. You can get jaded. You can go numb. You can find yourself staring at the ceiling at three in the morning wondering if boredom is an emotional response or merely the lack of emotional response. The distinction becomes horribly, painfully important. I have had to question all of us (how many war documentaries can you watch before you have some grave, grave existential questions that haunt you forever?) and I’ve had to question myself personally. I mean, I have capped on a Kathy Bates vehicle! I would have told you that was impossible. I have developed the urge to take Stan Lee by the collar and scream “Cut it out, you hoary old retread, you already SAID THIS!” And I love Stan Lee! I think I have told entire networks to eff off. It’s gotten a little scary. What if nothing gets through to you after a while unless it’s David Lynch in a retina-scorching treatise on human violence and the redemptive power of torch ballads? Because that’s a once-every-27-years kind of thing.
Oh, Showtime, thank you for saving me again, and for picking up Ill Behaviour and bringing it stateside. I am in love.
Some reviews of this BBC series have been… lackluster, and I wasn’t expecting to love it. I might love it more than most people. Perhaps TV programs are all actually Rorschach tests, because I might relate more deeply than some to characters who are still relentlessly trying to work through karma-saturated relationships from high school as their hairlines recede and their partners divorce them. Maybe it says more about me than it does about the show that I found the premise (tailspinning divorced-but-rich guy finds his best friend has cancer and is foregoing chemo for “holistic healing” and enlists a mutual best friend and a Satanically unethical doctor to abduct him and force him to undergo treatment) not only original and daring but endearing and even… um, romantic? I did! Call me kooky. But this is the funniest and most poignant thing I’ve seen in ages and I utterly adored it.
Charlie (Tom Riley) and his wife, Kira (Christina Chong), have a holistic medicine practice, a great marriage, adorable twin daughters—and a firm conviction that they can cure Charlie’s Hodgkins disease with beet juice and enemas. Joel’s (Chris Geere) crazy hedge fund manager wife has left him with a couple million quid and a bad case of Can’t Move On Disease. He doesn’t notice that Tess (Jessica Regan), their high school mate whose colleagues make fun of her for writing “robot porn,” is in love with him, because he never got over Kira, with whom he went on one date when they were about 14. So he goes on an Internet Date and meets Nadia (Lizzy Caplan), a pretty American oncologist with some pretty major issues (“Yeah, cigarettes are cheaper here, so I stayed”). You can see where this is going, right?
Joel rents a secluded and magnificent house in the country, Tess quits her stupid job, they kidnap Charlie and pay Nadia to help administer a three-month course of chemotherapy against Charlie’s will. Hijinks ensue. And metastasize.
Most of the characters are pretty hideous: egomaniacs, self-absorbed dingbats, addicts with no consciences, pious healthy-living creepazoids. There’s a good bit of nihilistic yuck to the script. These people are not good friends. They are not, really, good people. Trope Alert: Chemotherapy saves your life by killing most of you. Charlie’s friends are toxic. It’s a metaphor, dig?
What’s amazing about this story is… well, first of all, it’s strangely believable and one of those comedic premises that gets more realistic the more wackadoodle it becomes. But more than that, it made me envy them. I wanted to be one of these characters, even Charlie, who’s out of his mind with worry about his wife and being treated against his will with a medley of incredibly toxic chemicals. Under the slapstick madcap British goofballery, under the middle-aged angst about mortality and loneliness and having something to show for your time on earth, under the paranoid tension, the constant awkwardness, the blood and barf, the shifting allegiances, and the basic ridiculousness (but not) of the plot, there is a layer of wistful sweetness to this show that is actually pretty mind-blowing. Imagine if you were forced, actually forced, out of your regular life, the stuff that didn’t work but also the stuff that did, and locked down in a beautiful but shut-away hermitage and forced to account for yourself. To heal. To confront your actions, your addictions, your prejudices, your self-loathing, your unfinished business, your fear, your loneliness, your impulsivity, your envy, your defense mechanisms.
Admit it: It sounds kind of attractive. Admit it: It sounds, in a torqued way, like the best thing ever. Doesn’t it? If you don’t think so, I defy you to watch this show and not come around. This is a brilliant fantasia. It’s hilarious, it’s tense, it’s dramatic, it’s sad and nostalgic and even sexy. Chemo isn’t sexy! And yet there is a strange erotic undercurrent to those scenes that has little to do with Tess’s “robot porn” (her writing career definitely gets a boost from this experience and there’s an awesome coda in the last episode involving a galley she hands to Joel).
Nadia’s backstory could be a bit more explored and Jessica Regan’s an underutilized asset as Tess. However, overall? Joel is a remarkably unlikeable character and Geere has a rough row to hoe trying to make him work, but I think he does a damn good job of it, playing up the most human elements of the character: neediness, helplessness, feeling isolated and stuck. There’s never been a comedy that worked for everyone, and we all have our little tics (while we’re in the confessional I will note that I can’t stand Larry David. I know, heresy!), so yeah, you might find the characters too grim and unsympathetic. Or you might not feel at all seduced by the crazeballs premise. Or any number of things. What’s not in dispute is that this cast is awesomesocks! Every one of them hits it out of the park. The script is clever as hell. The pacing is great. I read a few reviews that suggested people feel this brilliant clutch of actors is squandered on an “annoying” project and I guess that’s where we come back to the Rorschach thing. Cancer Comedy is touchy stuff, no doubt. And this isn’t just comedy. It stares down some major moral questions. About selfishness. About suicide. About faith. About Doing No Harm. About boundaries, more than anything, because boy-howdy do these folks not have any. And OK, if you want to get really fussy, it is reasonable to say they don’t look at those things hard enough, probably because it would stop being a comedy really, really fast, you know? So, yes, they do focus on idiotic tightrope-walking necessitated by having to shore up an increasingly top-heavy house of cards, and they do take the low-hanging fruit of love triangles and missed connections over a heavy contemplation of human rights, which this premise also demands if you want to think about it.
But there is something actually beautiful about the way this show handles the many facets of surrender. And I think that’s why I love it. I mean, aside from the fantastic cast. Surrender is a funny thing—not comedy-funny. Sometimes when people die of things like cancer we even say “he surrendered to his illness,” but surrender is very different from succumbing or giving up. It’s a mindful acceptance of your powerlessness and there is, ironically, a ton of power in that act. Surrender is nonresistance. It’s getting out of your own way. And the ways in which these characters fail and succeed at that are, even given the absurd rulebook of this storyline, really kind of potent. And compelling.
I admit it: They got me. I love Ill Behaviour. I love it!
Ill Behaviour premieres tonight at 10:30 p.m. on Showtime.
Amy Glynn is a poet, essayist and fiction writer who really likes that you can multi-task by reviewing television and glasses of Cabernet simultaneously. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.