Big Boys: The poignant comedy that shines the light on the importance of male friendship.

by | Jun 7, 2022 | All, Reviews

The odd couple is a much-mined sitcom premise, with a myriad of shows built upon the fastidious, introvert forced by circumstance to spend time with a casually confident, careless extrovert. Looking at the trailers for Channel 4’s latest sitcom Big Boys, you might think it’s simply another in the same mould. Shy, gay, nerdy Jack (Dylan Llewellyn) is forced to share student accommodation with cocky, ladies-man Danny (Jon Pointing) is the seeming structure for Dylan Llewellyn’s first post-Derry Girls role. However, Big Boys is so much more than that, and from the start, it’s clear this is a show that doesn’t just break the mould, it shatters preconceptions along with it.

A loose memoir of writer/creator, stand-up comic Jack Rooke (based on his successful stage show), the six-part comedy follows Jack (Dylan Llewellyn), a closeted introvert struggling with grief after the death of his father, as he becomes the first member of his family to attend university. Due to deferring his journalism scholarship to Brent University for a year, Jack is low on the list for student accommodation and ends up literally on the outskirts of student life – in a converted portacabin, alongside fellow “mature student” Danny (Jon Pointing).

Their initial meeting goes exactly as you would expect, with Jack naysaying his mum Peggy’s (played by the glamorous London mum of choice Camille Coduri) attempts to encourage him to befriend his new housemate, dismissing Danny as a Take Me Out reject. But despite an awkward moment where the removal of a poster of Malala Yousafzai sees Peggy and Jack catch Danny in a moment of self-pleasure, Danny doesn’t shy from grabbing Jack by his fleece sleeve and pushing him out of his comfort zone, and out to the student night-life.

This quickly sets the tone for their friendship, with Danny nudging Jack to help him enjoy what most people would consider the standard student life. However, from the getgo, there are clues that Danny is not the oblivious geezer he at first appears. A photo of Jack cuddling his nan in his room, his advanced years (he’s 25), and his phone reminder to take his antidepressant medication all help peel away Danny’s laddish exterior to reveal he is not at all who Jack, and the audience, assume him to be.

The first example of Danny’s true personality comes as Jack’s first disastrous foray into sexual activity, with new friend, the flamboyant and self-assured Yemi, (Olisa Odele) leads to him walking away, humiliated and believing university is not for him. Danny goes after him, comforting the newly “out” Jack and spending time in his room doing the only activity that will calm Jack down – reading to him from the TV guide.

Danny’s instant offer to do whatever it takes to make Jack happy, and his unquestioning acceptance of what that was, along with his unflinching acceptance of Jack’s sexuality reveals Danny’s sweet, kind core. He spontaneously spends time researching LGBTQIA topics in order to better facilitate himself as Jack’s wingman and friend, and in the second episode curtails his own evening’s activities in order to keep Corinne company. He’s a young man who knows how to be a friend, and how much he needs one of his own.

Set in 2013, the show is littered with well-crafted, precise cultural references – from Jack’s fish named after his favourite journalist Alison Hammond to Jack’s father’s death going unreported for the 3 minutes because Lulu was doing the rhumba on Strictly Come Dancing – all of which highlights the adroit observational comedy that lifts the show above the norm. It works very similarly to Derry Girl’s 90s references, despite the lack of nostalgia for the 2010s.

Though, much of Jack and Danny’s university life is instantly recognisable whatever your age, including their friendship with sensible, serious feminist Corrine (Izuka Hoyle), and perpetual student-wannabe Jules (the student coordinator, played to the hilt by the reliably funny Katy Wix). And their antics are as painfully funny as any student shenanigan inevitably is, but it’s not the comedy that makes Big Boys stand out – it’s the melancholy.

The setting of outsiders struggling with university life is only the framework that allows Rooke to unfold a beautiful story of male friendship, and male mental health issues. Over time, we see how Jack is dealing with the loss of his father and the acceptance of his sexuality, while Danny struggles with depression, medication side effects and isolation.

Jon Pointing’s depiction of Danny (an amalgamation of people from Rooke’s life, according to the press) is immaculate and sensitively balanced. Never once do any of Danny’s actions seem false or trite, but only reveal the issues swirling around a big-hearted young man whose start in life has been stunted, in a different way to Jack’s.

Their connection and acceptance of each other’s very different personalities and experiences become more vital and profound as Jack seems to find his feet, just as Danny seems to be going under. Dylan Llewellyn and Pointing have a warm chemistry that translates superbly across the screen in both the chaotic farce and quietly painful scenes.

It is a hugely important topic and dynamic that is so rare on TV and rarer still in comedy, and one which highlights so much surrounding mental health topics for men. Though it should be pointed out that there are also plenty of strong female characters, with Corrine’s unexpected depth of affection for Danny a real highlight. And Jack’s own matriarchy home life (with mum Peggy, gran, and cousin Shannon) provides a real buoyant source of love and family that illustrates how grief can make those bonds even stronger.

Throughout the episodes, the real Jack Rooke narrates events in a comforting smooth tone that gives hindsight and insight (as well as comic asides) into youthful, fictional Jack’s actions. It’s not an unusual device and is used well with a breaking the fourth wall wink. However, it also becomes clear over time that the narration is not just directed to the audience, but that Jack is talking directly to Danny. When in their timeline it’s happening, and why isn’t immediately clear, but it’s a nice little enigmatic touch which keeps the audience engaged. It also works as a wonderful metaphor for the way that in good friendships we become a voice in our friends’ heads, a voice that hopefully helps drown out any negative ones.

Big Boys is a beautiful depiction of young male friendship, and how they often struggle to navigate through the worlds of grief, illness, depression, sexuality and self-doubt. Yet it never fails to forget its comedy stripes, doling out as much quick laughter as slow-burn heart, and reminding us all of the life-changing friendships that student life so often delivers.

                Big Boys is available now on All4.

Dawn Glen

Dawn Glen

07/06/2022

Scottish TV obsessive, who has been writing about TV since she sent a letter to Playschool and tracked Neighbours ratings. Co-creator of The Ship Yard, devoted to all slow-burn relationships - an all-consuming passion, especially in Britcoms. Wants to be Victoria Wood when she grows up.

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