Showtime’s Cancer Comedy ‘Ill Behavior’ Is a Gamble That Pays Off

When Sam Bain co-wrote “Peep Show” alongside Jesse Armstrong, the pair hit a comedy home run that went on to become a nine-season masterpiece with every arc going just a bit further into dark territory. Saddled with heaps of praise for that show alone, it seems like co-creator Bain struck out to top himself when he penned “Ill Behavior,” a comedy revolving around cancer, chemotherapy, kidnapping, sexual assault and all kinds of other controversial elements not usually conducive to a side-splitter. Bain even pointed out in an interview that the show was a tough sell. Thankfully the “Fresh Meat” co-creator is also gifted in the art of he sale, because “Ill Behavior,” originally picked up for the BBC in the U.K. and later by Showtime Stateside, is a perfect cocktail of controversies and sharp one-liners, with friendship serving as the garnish. Despite all the volatile ingredients involved, the “Ill Behavior” cocktail goes down surprisingly smooth.

American viewers are more likely to sample this U.K. offering thanks to Chris Geere of “You’re The Worst” fame donning the lead role, but they’re likely to keep watching thanks to the show’s relentlessly immoral characters and creative storytelling. As the show kicks off, Joel (Geere) is in the thick of finalizing a divorce. He has landed a £2 million settlement and a broken heart to boot, but more importantly, he’s free to have friends again, or at least to see them more regularly. Still, a rekindled friendship with his best mates Charlie (Tom Riley) and Tess (Jessica Regan) or a public bathroom romp with drug-addicted oncologist Nadia (Lizzy Caplan) aren’t enough to bring Joel out of his divorcee funk, and for a while viewers might wonder if they’re really watching the right show.

That’s one of the first bits of praise “Ill Behavior” deserves. The show takes its time getting to the meat of the issue, and by the time Charlie casually breaks his cancer news to Joel over a round of videogames, the viewer feels as heartbroken as Joel. Artistically, it’s a nice touch, juxtaposing two disparate ideas like gaming and cancer, giving the earth-shattering news a backdrop of levity. Joel’s reaction to Charlie’s treatment of choice — a rash of enemas, juice diets and definitely no chemo — reveals a lot about his relationship with his friend, and it resonates with viewers who have been forced to sit and watch their friends make questionable choices. Creator Sam Bain even described the show in an interview as a scenario where a friend actually does grab the steering wheel and takes control of someone else’s life. It may not be the right thing to do — especially in Joel’s case — but it sure feels right at the time.

When Joel and Tess’s appeals to Charlie’s logical nature fall flat, they decide the sensible thing to do is to use Joel’s settlement money to outfit a mansion with hospital equipment, kidnap their friend and forcefully administer chemotherapy. It’s an awful plan with even more horrendous consequences, not the least of which is watching Joel spiral from well-intentioned buddy to a downright monster of a human being. It’s a masterful spiral, and it’s worth every minute of the three-hour ride.

Ill Behavior” premieres Nov. 13 at 10:30 p.m. ET and airs Mondays on Showtime.