Sick Note is a dark comedy with a pretty solid premise: Perennial slacker Daniel (Rupert Grint) has a dead-end job and relationship, and then, on top of that, Dr. Iain Glennis (Nick Frost) diagnoses him with cancer. And, funnily enough, everything about his life improves; everyone around him—from his sadistic boss, Kenny West (Don Johnson), to his cold girlfriend, Becca (Pippa Bennett-Warner), who have both fired and dumped him (for good reason) early on—start to treat him much better. When it turns out that he was misdiagnosed and will go on to live a long life, Daniel decides he can’t go back to his life before people thought he had cancer, and Glennis decides he can’t go back to being known as an incompetent doctor (by his colleagues) and incompetent man (by his wife Annette, played by Belinda Stewart-Wilson). So the duo decide to fake it. What follows is a comedy of errors surrounding that central lie and the tangled web it weaves—a web which also leads to the accidental almost-death, and then the intentional actual-death, of Daniel’s best friend, Ash (Tolu Ogunmefun), who it turns out was having an affair with Becca… which, in turn, leads to Officer Chris Hayward (Daniel Rigby) investigating the whole situation.
Unfortunately, Sick Note is wildly uneven, and not all that funny, which is especially disappointing given the talent both in front of and behind the camera. By the time it gets anywhere resembling “good”—the second season’s fifth episode, and 11th overall, “Constable Polly”—it’s unclear whether it’s worth it to soldier on to the “end.” (If we limit ourselves to dark comedies starring Harry Potter alumni, the Daniel Radcliffe-led A Young Doctor’s Notebook clocks in at a better use of your time.) Plus, the late uptick in quality relies on the narrative work of the mediocre episodes that preceded it, as it initially follows everything that’s occurred in the season so far from a non-Daniel, non-Glennis perspective.
Created and written by Nat Saunders and James Serafinowicz (with Matt Lipsey as director), Sick Note has a singular narrative and aesthetic vision, and it never once veers from that, no matter what. This is the story these men want to tell, and though the only major change that occurs between seasons—shifting from Kenny West to his daughter, Katerina (Lindsay Lohan)—doesn’t read as an attempt to course-correct, it probably should’ve been. (The series premiered in the U.K. about a month after the #MeToo movement started to gain steam, and let’s just say that Kenny’s character suggests neither Saunders nor Serafinowicz had any idea that would become a thing.) In fact, though Lohan’s performance is neither a standout nor (another) flameout, Katerina meshes much better with the story as a whole. Especially, as she almost, sort of, but not quite solves the show’s woman problem.
Every woman on Sick Note is either a shrew or an absolute simpleton, even though the men driving the plot aren’t exactly thought leaders themselves. Daniel and Glennis are constantly getting away with their lies at the very last second, which—though it leaches the tension out of whether they will ever get caught or punished—marks them as “antiheroes.” Meanwhile, Katerina pushes around Michael (Karl Theobald), a middle manager at Daniel’s place of employment, who also gets piled on by his unseen wife and his daughter, who is the adolescent version of a shrew (meaning, she’s precocious). On the simpleton front, Ash’s widow, Vanessa (Camilla Beeput), almost feels like the sole human in a series filled with caricatures—until, that is, she has to be the most oblivious human on the planet every time she interacts with Becca, who is somehow a worse liar than the two terrible liars lying about cancer. Daniel’s co-worker—and potential “love interest,” though there’s no evidence of romantic feelings on her part—Linda (Marama Corlett), the sweetest and most likable character, is so simple you almost begin to wonder if she’s faking it; to add insult to injury, the first season treats the very real potential that Kenny will physically force himself on her as running “joke” that’s played for “laughs.” (Linda’s completely unaware of the unsubtle passes he’s making at her, and despite supposedly caring for her, Daniel never does anything to interfere.)
To say that Daniel, Glennis, and Hayward are in a state of arrested development would be to gloss over the fact that Daniel is a passive, lazy character, even after deciding to keep up the illusion of cancer. Glennis is simply an imbecile—a doctor who’s never heard of “auto-erotic asphyxiation,” doesn’t know what “ASAP” means, and makes anyone who has ever enjoyed Nick Frost’s work question why he accepted the role. And Hayward is a delusional beat cop with a misguided hero complex, who implodes his life (and marriage to a woman who, of course, just doesn’t understand his plight) because of that.
Sick Note is, in essence, three distinct series wound into one—the original premise, which plays out in Season One; a bizarre psychological thriller, stemming from Daniel confessing his sins to a stranger he plays video games with, which comprises the first half of Season Two; and the meeting of the two, in the latter stages of Season Two. Of these, the best, led by the terrific Rigby, is the third, and it’s not even close. As Hayward, he pretty much steals the show (and the focus) from both Grint and Frost, and the robbery is way past overdue. In truth, it’s too late.
Despite sharing the word “sick” in their titles, Sick Note is the polar opposite of Netflix’s other British import, Lovesick: Where the latter is sweet, earnest, good, and makes solid use of its cast, the former is merely edgy for the sake of being edgy, too “heightened” to get on board with, and wastes a number of talented performers. Sick Note has yet to be renewed for a third season—one can imagine that the final decision will be based on its level of success on Netflix—and the way Season Two ends leaves the door open to a Season Three wrap-up. Having failed to achieved anything close to its full potential until so late in its run, though, perhaps it would be better to put Sick Note out of its misery.
Seasons One and Two of Sick Note premiere Friday, Nov. 23 on Netflix.
Despite her mother’s wishes, LaToya Ferguson is a writer living in Los Angeles. If you want to talk The WB’s image campaigns circa 1999-2003, LaToya’s your girl. Her writing has been featured in The A.V. Club, Indiewire, Entertainment Weekly, Complex, Consequence of Sound, and Flavorwire, among other publications. You can find her tweets about TV shows, movies, and music you completely forgot about @lafergs.