'The End of the F***ing World': TV Review

It may be 'The End of the F***ing World' as you know it, but you'll feel fine.
1/5/2018

Netflix's new British import is a twisted, funny anti-romance led by great performances from Alex Lawther and Jessica Barden.

The End of the F***ing World premieres Friday on Netflix, and all I want to do is protect this pitch-black, eight-episode comedy gem of a U.K. import.

I want to protect The End of the F***ing World from an inevitable American remake. Everybody in the original, which aired on Channel 4 in the U.K., speaks English. Keep your grubby, well-meaning hands off it, TBS and FX!

Mostly, I want to protect The End of the F***ing World from Netflix's insatiable desire to renew great shows that should have been left as sterling one-offs. I don't need 13 More Reasons Why or American Vandal: Who Deux the Dicks, and I don't need The End of the F***ing Universe.

The twisted, efficient story that The End tells is a nicely contained thing that requires no additional embellishment, and it should be binged and cherished in its tart glory.

Adapted by Charlie Covell from the comic series by Charles S. Forsman, The End of the F***ing World is the unconventional love story of James (Alex Lawther) and Alyssa (Jessica Barden), both 17 years old. He's a budding psychopath who has been killing woodland creatures since he was a boy. She's the new girl in their depressing small town, an undiagnosed manic depressive with severe daddy issues and few social graces. In James, Alyssa sees a fellow outsider and kindred spirit. In Alyssa, James sees an unpredictable soul and also an opportunity to escalate his darker appetites. As they hit the road, eventually going on the run from the law, will James and Alyssa find love, or has he just found his latest victim?

"If this was a film, we'd probably be American," Jessica remarks at one point, well aware of the tradition The End fits into. There's a little Bonnie & Clyde, a little Badlands and a lot of True Romance, which extracted its own DNA from those earlier outcasts-in-love films. Those are the easy comparisons. What I found myself thinking of even more frequently was The Sterile Cuckoo, either the John Nichols novel or the Alan J. Pakula film adaptation with Liza Minelli, in which a young couple, both in need of more serious help probably, settle into a romance that's equal parts toxic and therapeutic and could either lead to happiness or tragedy.

A few of those may sound like dated references — there are also hints of Harold & Maude and several other genre landmarks from the late '60s and early '70s — and they're fitting since The End is amusingly unstuck in geography and time. It's suburban England, but it could basically be anywhere. And it's the present, but the mechanics of the plot hinge on both characters, for pointed reasons, lacking cellphones. The entire show is carried along by a spectacular soundtrack driven by the likes of Brenda Lee and Dinah Shore, old-time love songs with strychnine undercurrents that get pushed to the surface in this context.

In the hands of Covell (Banana) and relatively inexperienced, but clearly gifted, directors Jonathan Entwistle and Lucy Tcherniak, The End swings wildly between deadpan hilarious, shockingly violent and a sweetness that's occasionally just as shocking. It's not a tone that will hit with every viewer, but you'll know pretty quickly how much you're able to forgive, much less embrace, and then The End keeps pushing into murkier and murkier complications. Nothing in the narrative is all that surprising. What's satisfying is how even the outlandishness is grounded in the two main characters and defended through extensive and candid internal monologues that serve as counterpoint to the characters' halting getting-to-know-you conversations.

Although the series has other fine performances, including Gemma Whelan and Wunmi Mosaku as two detectives on the couple's trail, The End hinges on the two tremendous lead performances. Barden, so bloody good as Justine in the third season of Penny Dreadful, is a tart-tongued delight, quickly locating the vulnerability beneath Alyssa's thick skin and making both sides of the character vulgar and funny. Lawther gets to have a more straight-forward arc and takes James from deeply internalized and troubled and lets him bloom, in strange ways. Could you remake this with Aubrey Plaza and McLovin'? Sure. Should you? No. Lawther and Barden's strange chemistry is theirs alone and makes this thing work.

The End of the F***ing World runs only eight episodes, and none is longer than 22 minutes. My New Year's Eve plans to sample just one screener went astray and I'd finished in under four hours, carried over the couple slow or soft patches by the two stars and the groovy soundtrack. This is the first unexpected TV treat of 2018, and I hope lots of people watch it and nobody ruins it.

Cast: Alex Lawther, Jessica Barden, Gemma Whelan, Wunmi Mosaku
Creator: Charlie Covell from the comic series by Charles S. Forsman
Premieres: Friday (Netflix)

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