This review does NOT contain spoilers.
The End of the F***ing World recently came to Netflix. Consisting of eight bite-sized 20 minute episodes this fast-paced drama, which originally aired on Channel 4, seems tailor made for binge-watching. Our 17 year old protagonists James and Alyssa are classic teen misfits – damaged individuals disappointed by life but without insight, even into themselves. “I’m James,” begins the opening voiceover in episode one, “I’m 17. And I’m pretty sure I’m a psychopath.” He’s only pretty sure. His first task is to work out whether he actually wants to murder another human being. And from the off, he has his eye on his classmate Alyssa as a potential victim.
Whereas James is an expressionless, pale faced and outwardly unemotive teen, Alyssa is a classic angry adolescent. She says things for effect, to goad people and impress James. This isn’t sassy, confident anger, it’s the undiscriminating rage of someone barely keeping a lid on their own churning sadness. Under this brittle, cantankerous carapace hides a frightened girl.
From the start, the relationship between Alyssa and James keeps us guessing. James claims to have little interest in sex, his voiceover telling us he masturbates once a week “for medical purposes” – yet James has singled Alyssa out from her peers in a desire for some sort of penetration, albeit with a knife. She fascinates him and he acknowledges “she could be interesting to kill”. Perhaps this is the highest praise he can give another human being at this point. At the close of episode one, these unlikely lovebirds make the snap decision to run away from home – and the story of their strange journey unfolds.
EOTFW went on it’s own remarkable journey before ever making it to Channel 4. It started life in 2011 as a series of hand-folded mini-comics by US graphic novelist Charles Forsman. The first issue was sold in an edition of only 100 copies, priced just $1. In an altogether salutary tale of how far small self-published fiction can go, some copies ended up in London’s Gosh Comics. The story, still incomplete, found its way into the hands of TV producer Jonathan Entwistle, who immediately saw the potential for a small screen adaptation, with the locations shifted from the UK to the US. A short pilot with a different cast was filmed in 2014 before, in 2017, the series finally went ahead.
Screenwriter Charlie Covell, also an up and coming actor (you may remember her from 2016’s Marcella, also on Netflix) has endowed Forsman’s story with a convincingly British feel, while the frequent voice-overs and fast pace retain a graphic novel sensibility. This is realism with a slightly rarefied, surreal slant. The locations feel weird. James lives in a strange flat roofed 70s house, and his Dad’s prized possession is a somewhat incongruous 1980s looking car. There’s a dream-like, almost Clockwork Orange feel to this world, echoed in the whole design of the piece.
The soundtrack is brilliantly marshaled by former Blur guitarist Graham Coxon, whose guitar stylings tie many of the episodes together. He also gives us an extremely well selected range of incidental music from all sorts of genres and eras. Highlights include the insertion of ‘We Might be Dead Tomorrow’ by French singer Soko in episode 2, and Buzzcocks’ ‘Why Can’t I Touch It?’ in episode 5. It’s eclectic as hell.
The real success of this show, however, rests principally upon the strength of its lead actors. Alex Lawther, playing James, made his first big splash last year in the season three Black Mirror episode ‘Shut Up And Dance’. In that show he played a teenager being blackmailed, and much of his performance relied on silent terror and sweaty disbelief. EOTFW again requires him to marshall his impressive nonverbal face emoting skills, this time as a young man who struggles to feel anything at all, but with whom we, the audience, must empathise.
Meanwhile Jessica Barden is a scene stealer as Alyssa, the nightmare teen we’d hate to encounter. She manages to keep her vulnerability on the surface throughout. “Are you scared? I’m not” she asks James defiantly at the end of episode one, as they pull away from their old life in his Dad’s car. Barden’s delivery somehow sounds simultaneously cocky and shit-scared. It’s impressive.
Due to the road movie feel of the series, most of the secondary characters come and go – rarely lingering for more than an episode. It’s great to see Peep Show’s Matt ‘Super Hans’ King in there, and there’s also a great cameo from Nick Cave’s son Earl, who gives a comedic turn as Frodo the petrol station attendant. Most of the adult characters in EOTFW are presented as grotesque figures, whether as bufoons (James’s Dad) or sleazebags (Alyssa’s stepdad). Later in the series however, this is redeemed somewhat by the introduction of DC Noon, played by Gemma Whelan (aka Game of Thrones’s Yara Greyjoy). In her we see a likeable adult character whose actions are motivated by compassion. She plays a key role in the later episodes as events come to their dramatic climax.
Outwardly EOTFW may seem like a bit of a teen interest show – Skins for another generation – but it’s not. The huge cult following this show has garnered proves that it has managed to appeal across the board. Channel 4 and Netflix have remained tight-lipped about the possibility of a second series but, given all the online speculation, it’s hard to imagine the programme makers aren’t having some very intense discussions about how to make it happen. Watch this space.
The End of the F***ing World is streaming now on Netflix and All4