How The 'Ill Behaviour' Premiere Avoids Making Cancer Into A Punchline

Jon Hall/Courtesy of SHOWTIME

At first glance, a comedy about cancer might seem at best, ill-advised and tedious, and at worst, offensive. But Ill Behaviour is a comedy that sensitively deals with cancer. The BBC limited series premiered on Showtime on Nov. 13, and dares to make light of some desperately serious content.

Ill Behaviour follows Joel (Chris Geere) whose best friend Charlie (Tom Riley) reveals to him that he's going to take on cancer with veggie smoothies, acupuncture, and coffee enemas rather than soil his body with chemotherapy — never mind the 94 percent success rate of chemo. A horrified Joel fails to convince Charlie to accept mainstream medicine, and in its last few minutes, Ill Behaviour reveals how Joel plans to remedy the situation. He's going to kidnap Charlie and forcibly administer chemo with the help of an oncologist he once hooked up with in a restaurant bathroom.

That's right — life comes at you fast in this dark comedy, but this outrageous twist isn't disrespectful to those dealing with the disease in real life. Its characters aren't cartoonish or unrealistic, however silly they may be. Il Behaviour deals with raw, jarring moments — like when a friend casually drops in the middle of a video game session that he's not just not feeling well, he's actually battling a form of cancer. And many people probably feel when they get their own diagnosis or hear that of a loved one's — that they've momentarily left reality. Ill Behaviour gets the shock and the awkwardness of it.

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As a viewer, you really feel like Joel is doing what any good man might be forced to do if he thinks it's going to save his friend's life. Ill Behaviour feels less like a story making light of the horrors of a cancer diagnosis and more a story about the clumsy ways friends sometimes have to be honest with each other. It's a theme mirrored early on when Joel's friends reveal to him that they secretly hated his now ex-wife for the entirety of their marriage. Sometimes your friends are just sparing your feelings, and sometimes they feel like they have no choice but to give you some tough love.

We've all had those friends — the ones who make really questionable decisions in life and who we wish we could force to see the error of their ways. Of course, a life-and-death situation like Charlie's is a very extreme case. But it makes the show that much more interesting and the stakes that much higher.

"Boiled down to one line, this is a cancer comedy, and reconciling those two words seemed like it was going to be a challenge," Lizzy Caplan, who plays Nadia, the oncologist, told Yahoo News. "But that fear slipped away as soon as I read the scripts: At no point are we trying to make a show that makes fun of cancer. I don’t know how one would pull that off! It’s about bigger issues, like can you control other people?"

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Creator and writer Sam Bain wrote a blog about the show for The Guardian, revealing that he had no intentions of turning an awful disease into fodder for jokes. "People have asked me, how can a show about cancer be funny, when cancer itself is so obviously not?," he wrote. "The answer is that the show isn’t really about cancer at all — it’s about friendship. You don’t need to have had cancer to enjoy it, but you do need to have had at least one friend."

The creator's comments indicate that he's keeping in mind people who have witnessed friends and family battle with cancer and lost people along the way. In its debut episode, this comedy isn't flippant and it doesn't minimize the horrors of the disease. Ill Behavious uses this particular struggle as a launch pad to test the limits of just how far friends will go to save one another, even those who don't necessarily think they really need to be saved.

There are a few cancer-adjacent jabs in the dialogue, however. Joel claims Charlie only beat him at a video game because he "distracted him by having cancer," for example. But they feel like something you might say to your best friend if you were in Joel and Charlie's position. That's what's valuable about Ill Behaviour: it's out-there and occasionally nihilistic, but it's also very, very human.