Thursday, January 4, 2018

TV REVIEW: Netflix's 'The End of the F***ing World'

Netflix will release its new original comedy series The End of the F***ing World on Friday, January 5. The comedy stars Alex Lawther, Jessica Barden, Gemma Whelan, Wunmi Mosaku, Steve Oram, Christine Bottomley and Navin Chowdhry.

Read on for my thoughts on the British series after screening its entire first season.

Before a few days ago, I had no knowledge of The End of the F***ing World whatsoever. But on New Year's Day, Netflix announced that it was releasing the eight-episode first season on that upcoming Friday, January 5. As such, I quickly asked for the screeners and had to binge through the first season in order to provide some kind of pre-air coverage. It jumped right to the top of the screener pile. This isn't the first time that Netflix has done a surprise release. The same thing also happened with The OA near the end of 2016. That strategy proved to be quite effective with that show - even though it still hasn't returned for its second season. But with this show, it mostly just feels like Netflix had an open weekend to release something new. This show is a British co-production. It actually aired on Channel 4 during the fall of 2017. As such, Netflix probably didn't want global audiences to wait too much longer after the show wrapped its weekly run over there. And so, the January 5 premiere date starts to make more sense even though it also seems like a jarring last minute announcement.

The End of the F***ing World is based on a graphic novel of the same name by Charles S. Forsman. It's definitely one of the weirder and more uncomfortable shows I've watched in some time. It's a show that is best binged. I couldn't imagine doing episodic reviews of this series. They are noteworthy because they are incredibly brief. In the era of Peak TV, there has been the expansion of time slots. Shows no longer need to conform to a certain running time. They can just go for as long as the story demands. And sometimes, the creative teams just produce 60 minute episodes simply because they can and it has become the new normal despite the narrative itself not really supporting that. But with this show, the episodes basically have the same running time as broadcast network comedies. The premiere is only 18 minutes long. That is shocking. The longest episode is only 22 minutes long. That makes this a show that is capable of being binged in its entirety in just a few hours. The creative team has a very specific story it wants to tell. It wastes no time getting to the point and then complicating it to ensure that the narrative remains twisted and unpredictable all the way through without going adrift to spend more time in this world with these characters.

The story centers on two teenagers in the same town. Alex Lawther - from the "Shut Up and Dance" episode of Black Mirror - plays James, a 17-year-old who introduces himself to the audience in the opening minutes of the premiere as a psychopath. Jessica Barden - from the final season of Penny Dreadful - plays Alyssa, the rebellious girl always saying the wrong things at the wrong times. These two meet and quickly decide to run away from their lives in this normal and boring town. They go on a complicated and twisted journey across the English countryside where they get into lots of trouble that eventually sparks an official police investigation. That's about as much as I can say about the plot of the show without giving away some of the big twists. And even then, you probably need to watch several episodes in order to get to the quality material that makes the show worth watching. It's a little difficult to continue with and understand in the early going. That's entirely because of one plot device that keeps growing and growing until it comes to a surprisingly unexpected moment at the close of the third episode.

At the heart of this show is the relationship between James and Alyssa. It's a dynamic that starts out as one thing. The two of them are simply using each other as a way to feel like they are connecting with another human being. She is drawn to him because he doesn't try to conform to anything in society. He is drawn to her because he wants to kill a living person. That's a dark statement that the show makes in the very early going. The episodes allow the audience to listen in on these characters thoughts as they have them. The voiceover narration from both characters is key to understanding how they relate to the world and the people around them. Without them, it would be difficult to understand anything in this relationship. The show would lose its spark without that narrative conceit. And so, we get to hear how James doesn't feel any emotion whatsoever and keeps pushing the boundaries in an attempt to connect with his humanity. And similarly, we listen in on Alyssa as she's trying to justify her harsh words and behavior. It's ultimately a story about connection. It seems like these two are destined to be drawn to each other even though they don't truly know the other person at all. Alyssa can feel herself being drawn to James and trusting him while still being clueless about his desire to kill her. And yes, that is annoying. But the relationship morphs a lot over the course of these eight episodes. It's surprisingly moving and rewarding by the end of the season to see just how much these two need each other in order to feel alive.

The feelings that the audience has at the start of the series are absolutely the correct feelings to have. James comes across as a monster preying on a woman. He should be punished for that before anything tragic happens to her. But the kind of trouble these two get into complicates all of this. It allows empathy into the narrative. There is a sense that both of these two are deeply misunderstood. They have forever felt like the world just doesn't know how to interact and accept them. But they are just as confused as the world. They believe they understand why they do the things that they do. But the narrative makes it more complicated than that. Is Alyssa a mess because her parents got divorced and her stepfather is a prick? Or is she a mess because she simply doesn't know how to relate to the world? Are James' actions defined by him being a psychopath? Or are they instead rooted in something incredibly tragic that happened in his past? These are profound questions that the show doesn't make easy for the audience or the characters. We are so completely in their lives. The show spends quite a bit of time with the investigators chasing them and how they see this case as well. With them, their motivations are clear too while still allowing for some moral ambiguity. The season ends in a surprising place. At first, it seemed impossible to connect with these characters. But by the end, it's tragic and moving to see what becomes of them as they try to escape their seemingly unavoidable circumstances.