I Love That For You is a bright but thorny workplace comedy

No one likes a cancer liar – except maybe this one.

From predators such as Belle Gibson to attention seekers like Elisabeth Finch, if you lie about having cancer for personal gain, you’re dead to the world.

And yet somehow, the lead character in I Love That For You – a cancer liar – remains weirdly likeable. Maybe we, the audience, are being conned too?

Created by and starring Saturday Night Live alumna Vanessa Bayer, the workplace comedy is about plucky, aspiring TV personality Joanna Gold.

Joanna (Bayer) is a survivor of childhood leukaemia, and when she was sick in the hospital as a kid, she used to stare up at the wall-mounted TV with wide eyes and wonder at the home shopping channel. It became such a part of her life that when she overcame her cancer, all Joanna wanted to do was to host her own shopping show.

She idolised SVN’s star presenter, Jackie Stilton (Molly Shannon), as the bejewelled host hocked wares from bracelets and neckerchiefs to handbags and fake flowers.

As an adult, Joanna lucks her way into an audition for SVN and her natural energy and sales acumen turns the surprising opportunity into an actual gig. When her first show goes awry, Joanna is handed marching papers.

In a desperate, unthinking moment, she blurts out the unthinkable – she has cancer and that’s why she wasn’t on form. Given another chance – because you can’t sack the person who’s just said she has cancer – Joanna promises she’ll do better.

A white lie said in the heat of the moment cascades into a big deal when Joanna is sucked deeper and deeper into her deception.

What’s interesting about I Love That For You is that it convincingly argues that anyone could be Joanna. She didn’t tell the lie with bad intent. She wanted to keep the dream job she only just managed to land, and anyone can relate to that.

Does that mean you’ll lie and say you have cancer? Probably not.

Joanna immediately regrets her decision and even attempts to walk it back but it becomes much easier to go along with it, especially when she can use it to nab a bigger dressing room.

Here, I Love That For You walks a fine line in showing that Joanna isn’t above weaponising her fake illness but only when she’s pushed. She doesn’t really care about the bigger dressing room, but she’s happy to take it off her unpleasant colleague Beth-Ann (Ayden Mayeri).

Bayer and her writing team manages to always create empathy with Joanna despite her lie, which is objectively a very bad thing. And that really is no small feat.

Joanna is neither clear-cut hero nor is she the villain. You do root for her though, and that provokes questions about our own complicity in wanting to buy into a well-packaged story about deserving, sympathetic personalities.

As if someone with cancer is more commendable or righteous than someone who isn’t similarly burdened.

Whole movements and industries are created around “worthy” victims and I Love That For You stealthily challenges some of those concepts. Such as when Joanna’s boss, network chief Patricia (Jenifer Lewis), twists a reluctant Joanna into exploiting her sob story for sales.

Every time she mentions her cancer on air, about finding strength in the small things in life, like a silky, pussybow blouse, it makes her feel positive despite the Big C, those sales spike. Why are we so drawn to this vibe, is it to make ourselves feel better if we can connect with someone else’s pain?

I Love That For You interrogates all this within a bright and appealing workplace comedy framework that actually masks how thorny many of its ideas actually are – like empathising with a cancer liar.

I Love That For You is streaming now on Paramount+

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