Channel 4’s darkly comic new series The End of the F***ing World revolves around two awkward teens who start up an unlikely romance and embark on a road trip across Britain to escape their unhappy home lives.
So far so cute, except for one thing: James (played by Goodbye Christopher Robins’ Alex Lawther) is an up-and-coming psychopath.
There are shades of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita in this innovative adaptation of Charles Forsman’s graphic novel. James has sped through the animal butchering stage and is ready to move on to full-blown murder; he reckons the angry, foul-mouthed Alyssa (Jessica Barden) is the ideal first victim.
But incredibly, like Nabokov’s leering protagonist Humbert Humbert, James is oddly, captivatingly sympathetic, despite his devious intentions – and there’s always the faint hope that, you know, he might not actually go through with it.
In the years since The Inbetweeners wrapped up, few shows have so accurately skewered the nuances of teenage angst.
Outcasts at school and at home, James and Alyssa are lost souls desperately crying out for some attention, even if it leads to the police being called. There’s a deeply sad story at the heart of this: both have tortured relationships with their parents, and are so unhappy that they are willing to throw away their lives and start afresh.
In Alyssa, this desire to be seen bubbles up to the surface through sweary, insult-laden tirades, going out of her way to prove that she doesn’t care about what anyone else thinks. She opens up her first conversation with James – who, bear in mind, she is trying to woo – with an insult: “I’ve seen you skating. You’re pretty shit”, and always has a retort for her pervy step-father and self-centred mother: “Why are you talking like Downton Abbey?”
James, who claims not to have felt much at all since his mother passed away when he was a young child, is monosyllabic and distant, and she is inexplicably drawn to him, despite – or perhaps because of – his icy demeanour and callous disinterest in his fellow man.
The duo take it in turns narrating the tale, giving us an insight into each of their perspectives, juxtaposing their outer selves with their inner monologues. Slick comedic editing puts a gloss to the show’s darker elements, but it is a triumph of writer Charlie Covell’s screenplay that allows light and shade to be combined so seamlessly.
Barden puts on an incredible display as a bratty yet ultimately kind teen, and shares a dry rapport with Lawther. As the series progresses, their masks begin to slip, and the trip, which began as a farce, descends into genuine chaos.
While the show is very much about the two protagonists, a minor narrative surrounding a sympathetic police officer on their trail, played by Game of Thrones star Gemma Whelan, provides some laughs, as she navigates an awkward investigation alongside her colleague Teri (Wunmi Mosaku) with whom she appears to have had a drunken sexual encounter in the recent past.
The series as a whole – all eight episodes drop onto All4 after the premiere on Tuesday night – is a brilliant, concise and emotionally charged bit of British dramedy, worthy of comparison to Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag: at turns disturbing and hilarious, sometimes, remarkably, both at once.
The End of the F***ing World premieres on Channel 4 on Tuesday at 10.20pm