It's a little half-hour show about two unhappy teenagers. One's a boy, one's a girl. They go on a road trip. What could possibly be controversial?
Well, The End of the F***ing World, a Netflix original made with Channel 4 in Britain, is already something of a sensation. Its looming arrival here (streams Friday, Jan. 5, on Netflix) merited a shocked-and-appalled news story that landed on the Drudge Report the other day.
Yes, it's shocking in a way. Its nihilism is bracing. It is also brilliant, well worth your time and you'll want to binge-watch this disturbing British comedy that morphs with great care and skill into a deeply poignant and truly original coming-of-age story.
The two teens are James (Alex Lawther) and Alyssa (Jessica Barden) and they appeared first in Charles Forsman's graphic novel of the same title as the series. They are deeply strange, angsty teens and in writer Charlie Covell's screenplay they are at first outrageous and then become marvels of delicate human complexity.
"I'm James, I'm 17 and I'm pretty sure I'm a psychopath," is the first thing said, as James's inner thoughts kick-start the story. "I was 8 when I realized I didn't have a sense of humour," he continues. His hobbies, such as they are, include killing animals. He wants to move on to killing a person. He claims he once put his hand in a deep-fat fryer just to feel something.
At school, Alyssa is drawn to James because he's weird and he knows it. She just doesn't know how weird. But she's mainly a perambulating cauldron of anger and foul language, so having a weird sidekick seems like a good idea. Alyssa lives with her mom, misses her dad and hates her new stepfather. "Last week, he said I need a bigger bra, so I threw a chicken Kiev at him."
She loses control when another kid sitting at her table at school sends her a text. The idea of texting someone at the same table outrages her. She sneers, swears and smashes her own phone to smithereens.
James finds Alyssa alluring: "I thought she could be interesting to kill," he muses to himself. And, yep, as the series progresses James continues to be deeply interested in murdering Alyssa. He keeps imagining the act of slitting her throat and is obsessive about the perfect setting for doing that. Alyssa doesn't know, but in way, she senses it. It's what makes James fascinating for her.
They are not boyfriend and girlfriend. Alyssa's insistence that they have sex, just to get it over with, is chilling. She's dead inside, she insists, and can't really feel anything except the thrill of danger. For James, Alyssa's even middling interest in sex is mystifying and terrifying, leading him to tell himself, "She's a kind of a nymphomaniac."
One thing leads to another, James smashes his fist into his father's face and steals the family car. On the road, the two teens open up slightly to each other, behave badly, terrify others and, all the while, James is thinking about killing Alyssa.
By the end of the second episode, a soft light breaks through the darkness that surrounds these very, very troubled teens. And the light comes from inside Alyssa, whose soured relationship with her family has almost destroyed her, but not entirely.
The series is gorgeously made, often beautifully gaunt in its depiction of the England these kids hate. The two teens are at first broadly drawn, in the style of the material from which the series was adapted. But they are, in fact, simply raw-boned, scrawny iterations of youth anywhere made unhappy by awful home lives.
Both actors are terrific. Lawther's almost monosyllabic as James, hiding a vulnerability that one hopes and feels might be there inside him. He acts with grave intention, using carefully chosen cynical words. Barden is a wonder to behold as Alyssa, and the very slow melting of her icy anger is beautifully delivered.
Never mind the bluntness of the title, just cozy up to this series – it is simultaneously sinister, funny, wise and fabulous.