'Ill Behaviour': Can a 'cancer comedy' be funny?

Ken Tucker
Critic-at-Large, Yahoo Entertainment
Ill Behaviour (Photo: Showtime)

In case you didn’t notice from the spelling of its title, Ill Behaviour is a new sitcom from Britain about poor behavior, as well as a pun on how people behave when they’re sick. The ill protagonist of Ill Behaviour, which premieres Monday on Showtime, is Charlie (Tom Riley), who’s recently been diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. His close friends Joel (You’re the Worst’s Chris Geere) and Tess (Jessica Regan) are both shocked by the news and by Charlie’s decision not to undergo chemotherapy. He prefers a more homeopathic course of near-inaction.

OK, so far this cancer comedy sounds grim but perhaps bleakly funny, right? But Ill Behaviour, after getting in some amusing digs at what the show views as the nuttier side of homeopathy, takes a twist that makes the show more black-humored. Joel and Tess kidnap Charlie and force him to submit to chemo and other drug injections, under the care of a woman Charlie recently met — an oncologist played by Masters of Sex’s Lizzy Caplan. Caplan’s doctor is a poker-faced cynic who’s barely holding it together in the throes of wicked alcoholism. The character, Nadia, is written awfully bleak for American audiences, and occasionally doesn’t synch up with the more madcap tone of the friends-kidnapping-friend setup. But Caplan really attacks the role with vigor and makes it work.

Ill Behaviour is the product of writer Sam Bain, co-creator of the very popular British series Peep Show. Like Chris Geere’s other show, You’re the Worst, Behaviour doesn’t try for nonstop laughs — it’s more than willing to play up eccentric or bizarre or downright shocking ruthlessness to suggest how people behave under stress. (It also occurred to me while watching the new show that Geere is doing very little differently than he does on Worst — he’s playing the role as essentially the same character.)

Ill Behaviour has some thoughtful things to say about right-to-life issues and alcoholism, and if you can buy into the kidnapping-to-save-his-life development, you might stick around for the series’ full six episodes.

Ill Behaviour airs Mondays at 10:30 p.m. on Showtime.

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