The 50 best TV shows of 2022: No 6 – Big Boys
Jack Rooke’s truly special comedy about male friendships and mental health had it all – laughs, tears, 00s cultural references and top-tier sex jokes
Jack Rooke begins his autobiographical series by taking us back to 2013, just after his dad has died. “It’s shit when it’s your dad – the only one who knows the Sky pin,” real-life Rooke narrates as we watch his teenage self (played by Dylan Llewellyn) grieving with his mum Peggy (Camille Coduri) in their Watford semi-detached. “We stuck together like Phillip Schofield and Holly Willoughby,” he recalls, “but deep down we were sad like Eamonn and Ruth.” Get used to this emotional ping-pong: for every belly laugh in the next six episodes – and one erupts every minute – there follows a big old sob.
When Jack starts university he’s a self-described “damp cloth”, and Llewellyn is wonderful to watch with his wide-eyed naivety, fleece jackets and permanently perplexed look. He’s terrified of finally living his gay life openly (he hasn’t come out to his mum), but desperately wants to be excited about it. When he moves to halls, he meets well-meaning lads’ lad Danny (a brilliant Jon Pointing) – the kind of guy who mixes up Anne Frank and Tracy Beaker and calls himself an LGBTQ+ “ally-lama”.
At the end of the first episode, Danny reads out the TV listings and Jack guesses which channel each show is on, to help calm his anxiety. What ensues is a coming-of-age story about grief, depression, identity, sexuality and ultimately the unlikely but beautiful friendship between two very different young men.
They navigate normal university things: living away from home, going to parties, experimenting with drugs. They form a small, loyal crew: take-no-bullshit cool nerd Corrine (Izuka Hoyle) loosens up around them, while Yemi (Olisa Odele) is Jack’s first fabulous gay friend, who takes him to a queer nightclub where he reveals his learner plates by accidentally drinking poppers. There’s also Jules (Katy Wix), a thirtysomething former student who never left campus, works at the student union and confuses Isis with Asos.
The noughties world is brought to life with plenty of pleasing pop culture references: The X Factor’s Wagner, a pet goldfish called Alison Hammond, Take Me Out, Grindr, Jo from S Club 7’s reputation after Celebrity Big Brother and a Live, Laugh, Love sign. There’s also the ultimate indie kid soundtrack of Metronomy, James Blake, MIA, Justice and Patrick Wolf. It’s enough to make millennial viewers realise, oh shit, this was our youth! When did we become … old?
As Jack learns more about Danny, we see that he too has been going through a tough time. He’s estranged from his parents, his beloved nan has Alzheimer’s and he’s on antidepressants. Danny has hidden all this through big smiles and banter, but as the friends start to talk openly about their true feelings – which still feels revolutionary for TV in 2022 – they fall into each other’s arms in floods of tears, unafraid to be vulnerable.
Jack’s life brightens – a glorious sex scene in which he sings along to Hot Chip and hallucinates a Tesco meal deal shows how far he’s come. But things start to go wrong for Danny when he stops taking his antidepressants. “I just want to be a normal guy at uni,” he tells Jack through tears. “Now I just want a text from my nan.” He stops going to counselling, fails his first year and moves back to Margate without telling anyone.
In a standout scene, the real Jack Rooke sits beside Danny on the beach. Danny is writing a letter. “Whatever that letter is, don’t go there, cos you can’t leave us mate,” says Rooke. “Mate, I don’t want to leave you – I want to leave me,” is the reply. Like the rest of the script, it is taut writing that manages to give so generously. You sense Rooke wrote the scene with his best friend in mind, who died when he was 19 (he has since written standup shows and a book about male mental health).
The story has a happy ending, complete with a party, balloons and a toast to the future. At a time when writers seem reluctant to gift viewers such neat finales, it is refreshing – a reminder that, whatever happens, everyone deserves to feel OK again.
When I finished Big Boys, I thought of all the men in my life I immediately wanted to implore to watch it. My initial hesitation about any awkwardness this might cause was proof that conversations around men’s mental health still need to be normalised. But recommending this show to people is a gift – one I truly believe might change, maybe even save, some men’s lives. And with top-tier dick jokes thrown in (“I can’t get a Kerry Katona!” says Danny, who is unable to get hard because of his medication) television doesn’t get much more special than this.