The miniseries Ill Behavior premieres November 13th, 10:30pm on Showtime.
By Laura Bourne
I have been watching creator Sam Bain’s characters for more than half my life, I realised recently. Since it’s debut in 2003, Peep Show has been my go-to comedy. Never has anything quite so accurately held a mirror up to my own inner monologue as Peep Show did. Alongside this near-perfect comedy creation, he and his writing partner Jesse Armstrong created the wonderful Fresh Meat, a love-song to student life, and although I didn’t know it at the time I was even watching his creations as a child, being as I was a huge fan of The Queen’s Nose which he and Armstrong also wrote on.
So, I was very excited to hear that all six half hour episodes of Bain’s solo “cancer comedy” Ill Behaviour were airing on Showtime this month. I sat myself down for a binge along with 48 packets of Golden Wonder and high expectations.
The premise is simple if somewhat outlandish: Charlie (Tom Riley) has been diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma but is refusing traditional medical intervention in favour of holistic therapies, much to the dismay of school friends Joel (Chris Geere) and Tess (Jessica Regan). Deciding that they can’t let their friend die for want of a course of chemotherapy, and with the funds to buy what they need to DIY the treatment thanks to Joel coming into millions in the opening scene, they kidnap and drug Charlie against his will. Despite it sounding like an unlikely jumping-off-point for laughs, hilarity does indeed ensue. Throw in Lizzy Caplan (of Janis-the-cynical-grunger-in-Mean Girls-fame) as an alcoholic, sex-addicted Oncologist and some very Peep Show lines about love, sex and spelt bread and this is a very funny three hours despite its grisly subject matter.
The plot is tight and no scene is wasted: the friends kidnap Charlie because they completely and utterly believe that they are saving his life. Despite how messy and mad things later become they do wander into criminality as a consequence of good intentions.
However the characters are all in denial: Charlie about whether juice will cure his cancer, Tess about her writing career and Joel about it no longer being 2002 and the age of PS2s and Basement Jaxx’s Bingo Bango. But despite the comedy in the show, there is gravity to Charlie’s cancer: even if we don’t agree with his reasons for not wanting chemo, we understand them. A former addict with a mother who was “hollowed out” by her own chemotherapy after her own cancer diagnosis, he is sympathetic and believable. Like all of the characters in this show, is a well-rounded and three dimensional, with foibles and frankly unlikable traits but which make you believe in them as real people. Ill Behaviour also manages to show with unvarnished truth what chemotherapy does to a person: not just the well-worn trope of baldness and puking, but the exhaustion, despair and depression.
What I enjoyed most about Ill Behaviour, aside from the razor-sharp comedy, was the moral questions here: Joel and Tess mean well, or at least the kidnapping starts from a place of good intentions, but what they are doing- morally and actually- is a crime. Can we, however much we might love someone, ever justify taking their choices away from them, even if it is for their own good? And if we can, where does it end? They fake emails, they shoot him with a crossbow, they sort-of sexually assault him for the sake of his future fertility, and they say they’re doing it all in the name of love because he doesn’t know what’s good for him. But as the episodes continued I began wondering whether really, Charlie has every right to die in a sea of carrot juice, if that’s what he wants to do, after all these are his choices to make: it is his life to live and his death to die.
So, in short, this is good and a worthy way to spend three hours. I didn’t necessarily like all of the characters in Ill Behaviour, in fact much like their Peep Show and Fresh Meat cousins, they are all pretty unpalatable individuals with agendas beyond what we originally believe, in the way real life people are. But this was a comedy that made me think as well as laugh, and I enjoyed the three-hour foray into Bain’s slightly bonkers and unapologetically nihilistic world.