“Alyssa was new,” scrawny 17-year-old James explains through a voice-over, as we watch him lock eyes with a defiant looking girl at his school. “She’d started that term.” So far, so familiar. He pauses. “I thought she could be interesting to kill.”
James is a self-diagnosed psychopath. He lives alone with his father, whom he wants to punch in the face, finds school beneath him, and has murdered a range of different animals from butterflies to his neighbour’s cat. “It probably had a name,” he says, without a hint of remorse. Alyssa, terminally bored and vaguely captured by James’s outsider status, becomes his next potential victim. Inconveniently, she’s a little too unpredictable to pin down, and James ends up punching his dad, stealing his car and taking Alyssa on a bizarre road trip, all on her request.
It’s a jet-black premise, handled with a light touch. Based on a series of comics of the same name, The End of The F***ing World uses absurd comedy to navigate the potential violence at its core (“I feel comfortable with him. Sort of safe,” Alyssa thinks, as we cut to James sharpening a knife with obscene glee) – and somehow it works. The comedy comes from the chemistry between the two leads, and the script allows you to root for the burgeoning romance between James and Alyssa without letting James and his wild fantasies of violence off the hook, so it never becomes We Need To Talk About Kevin – And How Freaking Cute He Is!!!
The violence of men, often sexual, lurks as a potential threat in every corner – from Alyssa’s pervy and potentially abusive stepdad, to an ex-military man who gives them a lift, to a stranger they stumble across with a box full of pictures of brutalised women, to knife-wielding James himself. “It feels like sex can go from something you want to do, to a punishment, really fucking quickly,” Alyssa thinks to herself after an encounter with a stranger leaves her suddenly cold.
The End of The F***ing World is a show without many comparison points. It shares some similarities with Richard Ayoade’s 2010 film Submarine: from Alyssa’s frank outburst of sexual desire to James’s compulsive, anxious internal monologue to the surrounding comically pathetic adults to the occasional bursts of physical comedy. One terrifically awkward boy trying to sneak through his own life undercover meets one over-compensating, over-confident girl desperate to do something to break the silence and boredom all around her; a strange and blunt kind of romance ensues. Both works exist in a strange suburban setting that seems somehow isolated from the technologically connected present. Over at the Atlantic, Sophie Gilbert describes The End of the F***ing World as “a Wes Anderson screenplay that’s been rejected for being too dark”.
“If this was a movie,” Alyssa muses mid-getaway, “We’d probably be American.” The script here raises an eyebrow at its own mixing of genres – this is a TV show about two awkward Brits in the arse end of nowhere playing with Americana tropes: road trips, getaway cars, lone white male killers. The setting is deliberately muddy: there are almost no geographical locations referenced, and the mix of mid-century homes with wood-panelled walls, diners (a menu reads “one of the Top Ten GREATEST AMERICAN Dining Experiences in the South of England”), motels, along with a soundtrack brimming with the country hits of Brenda Lee and Ricky Nelson, is disorienting. The disjunct also communicates how out of depth Alyssa and James are: at one crisis moment in their adventure, Alyssa says to herself, “I don’t know if this is the right thing to be doing. I’m just thinking about what people on the TV do when they’ve done this.”
Like “sitcom noir” Search Party, The End of the F***king World mixes genres to put morally ambiguous leads in out-of-control situations and watch them panic, act, and squirm about how they handled it all later. “A lot of the time you don’t register the important moments in your life as they happen,” Alyssa says, once she’s past the point of no return. “You only see that they were important when you look back.”