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Big Boys season two review: Sweet, sensitive misfit comedy is something to be savoured

It’s 2014: the mysterious age of the ice bucket challenge, the Scottish independence referendum, and Alison Hammond on Strictly. It’s an era of “misogyny disguised as banter”, and a dress that might be gold and white but might be blue and black. It’s also the world of Big Boys, a Channel 4 comedy about misfit students at the fictional Brent University, which is returning for a sweet, sensitive second season.

The big boys (both literal and metaphorical) are back: Jack (Dylan Llewellyn) – a fictional proxy for the show’s creator, Jack Rooke –who is now “out” to his family, and his best friend Danny (Jon Pointing), a mature student who is recovering from a mental health episode that derailed his studies. And we are also reunited with their cohabitants in crummy university accommodation – Yemi (Olisa Odele), a flamboyant fashion student, and Corinne (Izuka Hoyle), a cynical, intellectual Scot drifting into a “will they, won’t they” relationship with geezer Danny. Together they form an ad hoc family unit, compensating for the deficiencies (or excesses) they experienced at home.

The first season of Rooke’s comedy essentially consisted of two simultaneous coming-of-age stories. On the one hand, Jack, coming to terms with his life as a gay man, and on the other, Danny opening up about his experience of depression. The question the second series poses is whether accepting yourself is only a stop on the journey... and if so, what’s the destination? “Being gay isn’t just loving c**k,” Jack despairs, as he continues to struggle romantically (“It’s quite a prerequisite,” Corinne responds drily).

While Jack moves towards consummating his desires (a process that includes reading self-help books about anal sex), Danny struggles with his feelings for Corinne. Even a succession of women (including, if my eyes don’t deceive me, Maddy from the first series of The Traitors) can’t distract him from his foxy flatmate. To complicate matters, Danny’s obnoxious father (played by Marc Warren, who condemns London as nothing but “traffic and Pret”) arrives back on the scene.

At its heart, Big Boys is a paean to acceptance, to living your truth. “First year of uni was where I started to discover myself,” the disembodied voice of the adult Jack (narrated by the real Jack) announces. Where Channel 4’s Fresh Meat (created by Succession supremo Jesse Armstrong, lest we forget) was an attempt to skewer the class dynamics of Britain’s non-Oxbridge universities, Big Boys navigates its way through modern sexual politics like a drunk Magellan.

Life in “this over-expensive demi-paradise known as Brent”, as an estate agent describes the area, is a maze of tangled interpersonal relations. But at the heart of proceedings is a classic sitcom dynamic between four friends (and Katy Wix’s over-eager student rep, Jules) that keeps things funny, even as the show grapples with themes like abortion, alcoholism, family abuse and more.

That said, while it retains some sitcom elements that feel referential to the group dynamics of, say, Friends or CheersBig Boys is still fairly unique in the world as a mainstream, non-didactic portrait of LGBT+ lives. For teenagers outgrowing the vanilla landscape of Netflix’s HeartstopperBig Boys offers a more rum-and-raisin portrait of graduation into adulthood. Grief, heartbreak, disappointment: the emotional nuances afforded to the long canon of heterosexual literature are all present here.

The performances by Llewellyn, Odele, Hoyle and Wix (not to mention Camille Coduri as Jack’s mum and Harriet Webb as his cousin Shannon) are rendered in bright, technicolour strokes, but the comedic focal point is Pointing’s Danny. The unexpected tenderness of “lad” culture, as it intersects with the diverse reality of modern higher education, is something that no show captures better.

“Britain before sweet chilli sauce was s***,” Shannon announces, “and now it’s bearable.” This vision of middle England – one that is loving, open-minded, and quietly self-deprecating – is all too rare on our screens. Sweeter than sweet chilli (and more nourishing, too), Jack Rooke’s comedy is something to be savoured.