HBO’s Magnificently Dark Rain Dogs Is Like No Other Family Comedy on TV

5 minute read

“SELBY—DON’T ANSWER.” These are the words that flash across Costello Jones’ cellphone screen when, in the debut episode of HBO’s excellent new dramedy Rain Dogs, she gets a call from Florian Selby. A working-class single mother, aspiring author, and peepshow dancer who has just been evicted from her London apartment, along with her adorable 10-year-old daughter, Iris (Fleur Tashjian), Costello (Daisy May Cooper) knows that letting Selby (Jack Farthing) back into her life would be a mistake. But it’s hard to stay away from her sometime best friend—a self-described “classical homosexual” from a posh family who’s just completed a year-long stint in prison—when he alone is willing and able to dig her and Iris out of desperate circumstances.

Named after Tom Waits’ booze-soaked record about “people who sleep in doorways,” Rain Dogs, premiering March 6, chronicles Costello’s desperate attempts to put a roof over her daughter’s head—and Selby’s desperate attempts to keep them both in his life, even if it means sabotaging her relationships, testing her new-found sobriety, and rooting against her success. This makes him pretty unpopular with the other two constants in Costello’s life: Gloria (Ronke Adekoluejo)—a pal who makes her first appearance in the show passed out in a telephone box, wearing last night’s going-out clothes—and the proudly perverted, ailing artist Lenny (Adrian Edmondson), for whom Costello performs unsavory odd jobs. The only undamaged soul of the bunch is Iris, whose normality may be a testament to her mum’s shoestring parenting. For Selby as well as Costello, the little girl clearly represents the purest love they’ve ever experienced.

From left: Jack Farthing, Fleur Tashjian, and Daniel Phung in Rain DogsJames Pardon—HBO

In many respects, Costello and Selby are soulmates. Despite their class differences, both are the love-starved products of deeply unhappy homes. While he’s a gleeful sadist, always picking fights and inciting interpersonal drama, she shows signs of masochism. And although they’re not sexually compatible, for obvious reasons, an electric chemistry courses through intensely physical performances from both Cooper, best known in the U.S. for her role in Avenue 5, and Poldark alum Farthing, who plays Selby as a sort of dandy Withnail. “God, I’ve missed you,” Costello sighs, her expression softening, as she catches sight of him, in the public restroom where he’s just had anonymous sex, for the first time since his incarceration. “Well, life’s sh-t without me, isn’t it?” he replies. “I mean, things still happen, they’re just not as exciting.”

That turns out to be quite the understatement. At their best, Costello and Selby are a fearless outsider duo having a nihilistic good time together and managing to raise a great kid at the same time. Former college classmates, they share a sort of gutter romanticism and a lexicon of dark cultural references, from Jean Genet to Nick Lowe, whose remarkably apt hit “Cruel to Be Kind” soundtracks one of the eight-episode season’s most memorable set pieces. But at worst, which is most of the time, their para-familial relationship qualifies as abusive, in a seemingly inevitable echo of their respective upbringings. “I love you,” says Iris, “but you’re both crazy.” The fact that Costello and Selby love her back, with a fervency Rain Dogs implies is an unconscious response to their own traumatic childhoods, suggests each, and perhaps their chosen family as a whole, could be redeemed.

RainDogs_B2D18
From left: Fleur Tashjian, Daisy May Cooper, and Jack Farthing in Rain DogsSimon Ridgway—HBO

A premise like this risks devolving into the kind of grim “poverty porn” Costello rails against as she and Iris flee the officials kicking them out of their home. First-time creator Cash Carraway, the author of Skint Estate: A Memoir of Poverty, Motherhood, and Survival, avoids this trap by going all-in on raunchy gallows humor. And she’s a genius at it. In one early scene, a love interest of Costello’s—a middle-class cultural tourist—is so aroused at the prospect of sleeping with a sex-worker single mother that, well, he immediately blows his chance. In an age of careful humor, Carraway has the courage to joke about rape, abuse, self-harm. (“Attempting suicide was his hobby,” Selby’s icy mother says of his father. “How many people die doing the thing they love?”) Yet the comedy always comes out of empathy for characters in pain.

There’s a lot of TV about trauma these days—which makes sense, given that we’re living through a global mental health crisis with many discrete and depressing facets. What the vast majority of it, from Apple’s recent plane-crash weepfest Dear Edward to the phenomenon that is The Last of Us, misses is that no one is merely the sum of the horrors they’ve survived. Easily the most compelling characters I’ve encountered this year, Costello and Selby have obviously been warped by their parents. But they also have desires and personalities and twisted senses of humor all their own; in their sensibilities as well as in their brokenness, they fit together so perfectly that it hurts to pull them apart. Indelibly specific, and willing to alienate the many viewers who will probably find its crudeness off-putting, Rain Dogs, in much the same way as Waits’ best songs, tempers its menacing tone with unexpected hints of warmth. And like any great album, the show’s eight short, thrilling episodes demand to be played on repeat.

More Must-Reads From TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com