Cancer comedy Ill Behaviour elevates an absurd premise to affecting drama

Alex Moreland
Contributor

On the face of it, it seems more than a little out there.

A man gets cancer, but opts to treat it only with increasingly ridiculous homeopathic remedies: hypnotherapy, carrot juice, and coffee enemas. Two lifelong friends, increasingly appalled by his decision, decide to kidnap him – keeping him in the basement of a rented mansion to forcibly administer chemotherapy with the help of an alcoholic Doctor. Along the way there’s drug abuse, sexual assault, and a successful self-published writer. Calling the premise absurd is perhaps an understatement.

Ill Behaviour manages to pull off a clever trick in its opening scenes. It starts with standard sitcom fare; Joel (Chris Geere) has been left by his wife of ten years. He’s sitting on a balcony in his underwear, and throwing money off the side of a building. You could build a programme around this moment on its own – with Charlie (Tom Riley) and Tess (Jessica Regan) helping Joel rebuild his life, sending him off on dates with Nadia (Lizzy Kaplan) and so on and so forth. And up to a point it does this – but it breezes quickly through it, an act of narrative substitution shifts quickly away from a despondent Joel.

In turn, then, this signals how Ill Behaviour is going to work. It’s a heightened programme, one that quickly begins to work in broad, exaggerated strokes – yet still keeping the original archetypes in place. Despite taking these characters to extremes, pushing them beyond the limits, breaking every boundary as they go, they remain broadly recognisable. The long-suffering friends, the overgrown manchild, and the bitter cynic. In establishing these initial sketches, the show remains grounded; in continuing to push them further, Ill Behaviour develops a group of nuanced, flawed characters.

Part of why it succeeds is because of the strength of the performance of its leads. Tom Riley and Chris Geere have a strong chemistry together, imbuing their interactions with a real sense of shared history, even as their friendship grows ever more fraught. Lizzy Kaplan is note perfect throughout, and Jessica Regan is in many respects the stand out performer – she’s got brilliant comic timing, and fantastic delivery. Of course, Geere deserves extra plaudits for anchoring the programme as its the unconventional leading man; Joel walks a fine line between admirable and despicable, and Geere realises the character fantastically.

As Stuart Heritage noted in The Guardian, each character is in a state of denial; repressing feelings, refusing to confront illness or addiction, and being unable to let go of the past. Up to a point, it’s self-destructive – the catalyst that keeps pushing them further and further down this road, until it becomes increasingly clear there’s really only one way it can end. However, it also serves to highlight that there’s a genuine emotional core to the series; it’s more than just gallows humour, but a programme about the lengths people go to for their friends. In a real and meaningful sense, none of the characters are the same people at the end of Ill Behaviour as they were when it began. The show manages to achieve a note of genuine pathos at the end – while sneaking in one last wickedly funny dark joke, of course.

Ultimately, Ill Behaviour is an engaging programme with a wit as quick as it is dark. It takes its absurd premise and plays it straight – it’s emotional in genuinely unexpected ways, and leaves a lasting impact long after the credits roll.

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