Cancer isn’t usually one of the first topics to come to mind when discussing ideas for a new comedy show, but hey, they say he best comedy straddles the line between funny and offensive. That’s what “Peep Show” creator Sam Bain must have thought when writing “Ill Behaviour,” a clever but ineffectively executed show about toxic friendships, relationships and most importantly, cancer.
Showtime picked up the three-hour BBC miniseries and serialized it into six 30-minute episodes. It begins with Joel (Chris Geere, “You’re the Worst”) on a rooftop ledge throwing away some of the two million pounds he received as settlement after divorcing his wife, a hedge fund manager. After an intervention by his two friends Charlie (Tom Riley. “The Collection”) and Tess (Jessica Regan, “Doctors”), he goes on a date with an ill-humored, drug-addicted oncologist Nadia (Lizzy Caplan, “The Disaster Artist”). Eventually, Joel discovers that Chris has early-stage Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, a serious but treatable form of cancer that Chris and his wife are treating with “alternative methods” which include several types of juices and coffee enemas. Concerned that his best friend is writing his own suicide note, he plans to essentially kidnap him and with the help of Nadia and Tess, and force him to undergo chemotherapy.
The show’s premise is certainly unique and intriguing, and for the most part, the acting is excellent throughout. Geere is charming and awkward and breathes life into a character who is frankly a pathetic, directionless deadbeat who should be completely unlikeable. Charlie’s decision to forego chemotherapy is actually motivated by seeing his own mother’s experiences with chemotherapy, and Riley portrays him as a caring family man. Caplan doesn’t miss a beat playing the most uncomfortable character of the bunch: a completely humorless cynic.
Despite the fantastic acting, the show falls apart in the characterization and far-fetched plot. I don’t have a problem with suspending disbelief here and there, but it becomes a problem when it’s necessary at almost every new development (“Game of Thrones” season eight anyone?). Joel’s plan will obviously require quite a bit of cash as well as skipping a lengthy amount of work. Oh wait… Joel has been jobless and his ex-wife just happened to be quite wealthy. The blind date that Charlie sets up for Joel just happens to be with an oncologist. Riley plays Charlie well, but there doesn’t actually seem to be much compelling about him. His friendship with Joel is relatively unexplored so far. While Caplan’s self-destructive, cynical character is at times shocking and mostly entertaining, the shtick can get old very quickly if the show offers no progression.
What makes the show the most disappointing is that based on the premise, it could have explored important questions such as the relationship between modern medicine and “natural medicine,” to what extent friends should critique each other’s decisions, and in cases like Charlie’s, how far should Joel have gone to prevent what to him seemed like an inevitable death. It could have tackled serious issues through comedy, but the writing is far less intelligent and subtle.
“Ill Behaviour” definitely has its moments and offers up quite a few laughs, but ultimately, it doesn’t live up to its potential. The story is interesting enough to make me want to continue watching, but unless certain plot points and themes are explored further, the show will waste its excellent cast and unique premise.