I’ll level with you: The pilot of The End of the F***ing World teeters juuust on the edge of what I might find cloying. It’s a fantastic episode, but it succeeds in spite of its central conceit.
On paper, it sounds like a goth Moonrise Kingdom reboot: Two disaffected kids decide to run away, deliver odd statements at each other in a precocious monotone, and I’m guessing they’ll probably fall in love. Even reading back what I just wrote, my eyes glaze over. There is little edgy or interesting about suburban teen angst that 1,000 other TV shows and movies haven’t done already. Meanwhile, my patience for media about disaffected white guys is exceptionally low. (Step it up, guys, get affected!) And the bar for British dark comedy has been set insurmountably high by the pitch-dark and pitch-perfect Fleabag. Also, Christ, is that internal-monologue voice-over? My everything hurts.
But The End of the F***ing World is exceptionally good, and I expect it will only get better. For starters, the performances are absolutely fantastic. In this pilot, we’re introduced to James (Alex Lawther, giving a Hannibal-level psychopath acting masterclass), a teenager who claims to have no feelings, and who once stuck his hand in a fat fryer just to feel something. James has a dad named Phil (Steve Oram), who seems fine-to-nice and whom he hates irrationally. (So good is Lawther’s performance that it never once reads like “Ugh, dad, get out of my LIFE.”)
James does not like his dad’s middling jokes, but he does like killing animals. The sequence when we learn this fact is so unblinking that it’s what jolted me from my I-do-not-expect-to-like-this stupor. James has gotten bored with killing mice and rabbits, though, and has decided to stake out larger prey at his high school. When he meets the bossy and brazen Alyssa (Jessica Barden), he thinks he’s found what he’s looking for, but Alyssa is no one’s victim. She is new to school, having recently moved to town with her mom, Gwen (Christine Bottomley), who is more interested in her new husband, Tony (Navin Chowdhry), and their twin babies than her older daughter from a previous marriage.
When Alyssa is ignored by the other girls at school, she marches over to the solitary James. He quickly decides she might be “interesting to kill,” and so, as James puts it, he “pretend[s] to fall in love with her.” Pretending to fall in love entails bad makeout sessions and stilted attempts at conversation — in other words, what actually falling in love as a teenager is like.
James takes Alyssa on a date to an American diner (which called to mind the American-themed restaurant in Wee Britain on Arrested Development; are there really American-themed diners in the U.K.? Are they any good?), and Alyssa promptly gets the pair kicked out by swearing at the waitress. James is legitimately intrigued. Has there ever been a “pretend romance” onscreen that hasn’t progressed into a real one?
James takes Alyssa back to his house, which she deems “weird.” We learn that his mom lives in Japan, and the amount that this fact seems to hurt James provides further evidence that he is not actually a psychopath, just a hurt kid wrapped in protective layers of snark.
James’s sweet and simple father comes home, clearly excited at the prospect that James might be interested in girls — or anyone, really. (James informs us that he does masturbate once a week for health reasons.) Later, sitting on the roof of his house, Alyssa asks James to eat her out. They make an appointment for the next day.
The next morning, James is ready with his knife, but she doesn’t show up. Meanwhile, Alyssa muses about her tendency to want to ruin things — like she did at the diner — and says that for whatever reason, she feels safe with James. She’s on her way out the door to see him when she’s waylaid by a party she forgot her mom was having. Alyssa finds herself alone in the kitchen with Tony, who creepily offers her a beer. When Alyssa snaps at him, Tony tells her to leave if that’s the way she feels. Then he hits on her, and it becomes clear from Alyssa’s expression that this isn’t the first time it’s happened. The teenage detachment drops away and real emotion takes over as Alyssa hurries to James’s house.
Once there, she strips down to her bra, but James doesn’t seem interested in sex, as he’s too busy thinking of the best ways to kill her. Alyssa interrupts his reverie by suggesting they run away together. James considers this idea. He doesn’t have to kill her just yet — and, of course, he’s more in love than he wants to be. On their way out of James’s house, he punches his dad in the face and steals his car. It’s a move that frankly bummed me out: James’s dad seems nice, but hey, maybe the series will prove me wrong.
And so, our … heroes? … run off together. They don’t know where they’re going, but they both swear they’re not scared, even though, as James says, Alyssa probably should be.
The problem with most “dark comedies” is that they present themselves as if they’re intrinsically interesting or different from ordinary TV. In the self-selecting content bubbles we all currently live in, though, it’s doubtful anyone who’s watching this show hasn’t already seen the likes of Black Mirror, Fleabag, Love, Bojack Horseman, and so on. Genre shows aren’t all that impressive in and of themselves anymore. The likeability factor of TEOTFW, as far as I’m concerned, is nigh zero on paper, but it’s astronomical onscreen. I’m genuinely excited to see where it goes. Whether or not it nails what it’s trying to do will depend on just how much it can differentiate James’s questionable psychopathy from Alyssa’s teen ennui. If playing out the tension between those two types of indifference is where this is headed, that’s something I haven’t seen before. That’s the beginning of something very new.