Netflix’s Demented ‘End of the F***ing World’ Is So Perfectly Timed
With nihilism ever present in the air, Netflix’s comedy couldn’t have a more fitting title. But its mining of warmth and romance out of bleakness and pessimism is just as resonant.
Well, there’s never been a more suitable time for a TV series titled The End of the F***ing World.
Granted the timing of Netflix’s new binge-ready dark comedy to a nuclear dick-measuring contest and cataclysmic weather is just upsettingly fortuitous timing, premiering as half the country burns in wild fires while the rest lives in constant fear of gun violence. The series is an adaptation of Charles Forsman’s 2011 graphic novel, and already debuted to positive reviews in the U.K. last fall.
The apocalypse we encounter in the series’ eight episodes, which premiere Friday on the streaming service, centers more around the emotional dystopia of teenagehood than any scorched-earth doomsday. Its permeating nihilism, however, certainly rings true regardless.
Borrowing from teenage coming-of-age hallmarks like 10 Things I Hate About You, Heathers, and Skins and injected with the adrenaline-ridden darkness of, say, Bonnie and Clyde or even Pulp Fiction, it’s a surprise to find that The End of the F***ing World plays mostly as a romance. Often flipping its anarchic cynicism for a palpable optimism and warmth, it’s the dramatic embodiment of finding love in a hopeless place. In this case: rural Britain.
We’re introduced to the first of our angsty Bonnies and Clydes, James (Alex Lawther), through voiceover: “I’m James. I’m 17. And I’m pretty sure I’m a psychopath.”
James was 8 when he realized he had no sense of humor. He always kind of wanted to punch his dad in the face. He put his hand in a deep fryer when he was 9, because he wanted to feel something. When he was 15, he put his neighbor’s cat in a box, took it to the woods, and killed it. He killed more animals after that, and he “remembered every single one.”
Now, he informs us with a monosyllabic, apathetic drollness, he has bigger plans. “I was going to kill something bigger. Much bigger.” Having breezed past animal homicide, he shrugs that murder must be next. He just needs a target.
So we meet Alyssa.
Played with freckle-faced spunk and boiling teenage petulance by Jessica Barden, Alyssa is more instantly sympathetic, in that her brattish boisterousness is recognizable and relatable and her voiceover is packed with the kind of self-deprecating personality diagnosis that inspires memes captioned, “It me.”
“I have these moments when I have to lie down because everything feels like sort of too much,” Alyssa says, for example, when we meet her. She’s emboldened by her outcast status: “I don’t trust people who fit in.”
Later, when taking stock of her life, she delivers a clarifying monologue. “Sometimes everything is suddenly really simple,” she says. “It’s like everything shifts in a moment, and you step out of your body, out of your life. You step out and you see where you are really clearly. You see yourself, and you think, ‘Fuck this shit.’”
And so Alyssa and James meet. She wants to experience something, and to do it with a kindred fuck-it-all spirit. As for him? He wants to kill someone. She seems like she might.
You know. A love story.
Ultimately, and in the most absurd (and therefore enticingly watchable) of manners, The End of the F***ing World is a heartwarming romance. Alyssa brings James out of his shell. He helps her understand that the person she’s convinced herself she needs to be isn’t necessarily who she is. It lulls you with its sweetness, especially given the deadpanned directness of the dialogue, until it jolts you awake with a reminder that James plans to kill Alyssa.
So, yes, The End of the F***ing World tends to be rather disturbing, and that’s very much the point, going so far as to traumatize you into laughter—a clever comedy skill. That’s especially true when James and Alyssa high-tail out of town, kicking off a series of escalating calamities that soak the ensuing episodes with a dire gruesomeness that we won’t spoil here.
Every coming-of-age tale needs dramatic stakes to jumpstart personal growth. The circumstances here are darker than you might expect, even in a series that launches with its protagonist introducing himself as a psychopath.
There’s a frankness to the humor and a general dampness to the feeling of The End of the F***ing World that’s in contrast with the giant feelings of so many other teen series, including British ones like Skins and The Inbetweeners, which, in respective ways, share some aesthetics with it.
But James and Alyssa’s emotional dissociation only amplifies the show’s emotional resonance. For all their coldness and cynicism, both clearly just want to feel and to experience. There’s a sort of blanket sadness and compassion surrounding both characters, which is an interesting antidote to their saltiness and reckless behavior. Their bonding is sweet, however dastardly the motivation.
The End of the F***ing World is a breezy binge. Each episode clocks in at around 20 minutes, so you can wrap up the series in less than three hours. There’s potential for a slowburn fandom here, with the show’s tonal peculiarity and baiting title a good bet for helping Netflix make inroads in the teen comedy space after having made a major splash in the teen drama genre last year with 13 Reasons Why.
Of course, the scale of 13 Reasons Why’s popularity triggered a certain amount of backlash, especially around what many viewed as a problematic misunderstanding of mental illness. The controversy surrounding that makes The End of the F***ing World’s skewering of it for laughs seem more cringe-worthy than it might have otherwise. James grappling with whether he’s a psychopath is empathetic, but hardly sensitive or nuanced.
Then there’s the question of whether, given the climate, audiences might even be in the mood for a nihilistic teen comedy. Is it tone-deaf, or cathartic? Given how it mines warmth and romance out of pessimism and bleakness, we’d argue more towards the latter. It’s the end of the world as we know it, and these characters aren’t particularly aspirational or deplorable. They feel…fine.