Got a good but an odd one to recommend for you today. The gist is this: "A boy and a girl fall for each other in New York. Complications ensue." Except, you know, they are not kids but twentysomethings and the complications are rather lurid. If you're thinking romcom, you're right, but this is the romcom from hell. Stick with me here.
When interviewed a while back by the Guardian, American playwright and sometime-screenwriter Neil LaBute was obliged to say this: "You know, I'm a relatively nice person. I don't go up to people in the mall and try to break them down or anything."
LaBute is notorious in the way that some writers are superficially notorious because a few elements of their work outrage people. His play In the Company of Men became something of a sensation as a movie because of the blatant, raw misogyny of some of the male characters.
In the play and movie, two men, Chad and Howard, decide to target a vulnerable woman, simultaneously woo her and then break off the relationships to destroy her. Their motives are horrendous. It's just spite. They hate women. The play and movie outraged a portion of the audience who saw LaBute as somebody celebrating vile misogyny. Those people conveniently forgot what actually happens to the two male characters in the end.
Billy & Billie (Super Channel, 7:30 p.m.) is LaBute's latest foray into television. It was done for the satellite service Direct TV and aired in the United States months ago, to mixed and perplexed reviews.
Little wonder. It's an acrid romcom that gets even more twisted as it progresses. We meet Billy (Adam Brody) and Billie (Lisa Joyce) after their first night together. Their first, next-morning conversation is stilted, as happens in such stories, but it's raw and adult, too. From there on, there is the typical storyline – they fall in love and deal with the normal curiosity from friends, colleagues and former lovers. This is standard fare in the fun that romcoms have with the start of a new relationship. But here's the thing – it soon becomes clear that Billy and Billie are stepbrother and sister.
When the show aired in the United States, LaBute told Variety he "thought it would be interesting to explore an obstacle that society deems taboo in a romcom format." And he said he wants to "address love's limits and societal acceptance."
He does, and the series is both unnerving and fascinating. It's minimalist – most scenes are two people talking. Yet it's saturated in LaBute's trademark terse, testy and provocative dialogue. A scene in which Billy attracts a flirtatious waitress while having breakfast with Billie is funny on one level and disturbing. Billy is a type – he's a good-looking, laconic magazine journalist whom women find attractive and charming. (The waitress eventually corners him in the bathroom to give him her phone number.) So, why on earth is he involved with his stepsister? And Billie is a confident, humorous woman not lacking in men who like her a lot. So why this relationship? Is it a matter of two narcissists intent on fulfilling a forbidden lust? Or are they genuinely in love and entitled to find the nurturing relationship they need?
Billy & Billie is spiky and, yes, provocative in LaBute's usual manner. His ear for telling but unemphatic dialogue is uncanny. It's a remarkable achievement, this little trip into romcom hell. But it's far from hellish to watch, if you're open to it.
It's also one of those indicators about the depth and breadth of television these days. The medium offers a platform for writing at the highest level. There's a lot of romantic-comedy cuteness in this series, but it's shot through with disturbing observations about sexual entitlement and, at the same time, curious pleas for understanding.
The entire series – it is 10 30-minute episodes – will be available to binge-watch on Super Channel tomorrow. Do it if you're curious, but tread carefully. Remember that you're going to hell.