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TELEVISION REVIEW

In HBO’s ‘Rain Dogs,’ desperate times and desperate measures make for a superb series

Daisy May Cooper in the HBO series "Rain Dogs."James Pardon

There’s a kind of comedy, the same kind that defines the potent new series “Rain Dogs,” that isn’t really very funny. It’s close to tragedy, except that it sometimes pries out bits of humor from the situations of destitution and despair that it depicts. Bits of redemption and aspiration, too. It’s a comedy largely because ultimately the characters have one another, and because they fight against bad odds rather than just succumb.

The bleak circumstances in the London-set “Rain Dogs” have an almost Dickensian flavor, in that they revolve around urban poverty, the cruelties facing children with no means, and the extremes that a flawed social system can drive a person to. The world of the show is painfully withholding, with almost none of the warm sentiment and guiding angels that leaven Dickens’s fiction. For that reason, and for show creator Cash Carraway’s admirable refusal to soften the material, “Rain Dogs” is for more daring viewers and not for those seeking a balm. The half-hour show is rewarding, rich in its characterizations and commanding in its self-awareness, but the journey can be harsh, especially as your hopes for the characters are so often dashed.

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When we first meet our heroine, single mother Costello Jones (Daisy May Cooper), she is at a low, having just been evicted from her subsidized housing with her 10-year-old daughter, Iris (Fleur Tashjian). Across the first eight-episode season, we watch them go from lifeboat to lifeboat, merely staying afloat, never quite able to land and set down roots. After the eviction, their options for shelter come down to a laundromat, a friend’s car, or a free room in the home of a skeevy stranger. Or else Costello can reconnect with her best friend, Selby (Jack Farthing), an abusive gay man who has just gotten out of prison for an assault. He comes from money, and when his mother is willing to give some to him, he is willing to share it with Costello and Iris, whom he sees as his daughter.

One of the many things that drew me into “Rain Dogs,” an HBO-BBC co-production that premiered this week on HBO, is the complicated relationship between Costello and Selby. It’s rare to find a series that digs so deeply into a toxic friendship, showing us the pair’s love for each other and then how easily it can turn to hatred. Selby is a monster — and Farthing, who was bad guy George Warleggan on “Poldark,” is good in the role — and yet Costello can’t quite break away from him. She goes through many of the same struggles as domestic abuse victims, trying to move on until neediness, habit, fear, or economic desperation bring her back. Her friend Gloria, played by the wonderful Ronkẹ Adekoluẹjo, is tired of Costello’s inability to sever the tie.

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From left: Fleur Tashjian, Daisy May Cooper, and Jack Farthing in "Rain Dogs."Simon Ridgway

Another compelling thing about “Rain Dogs”: Cooper, whose performance is remarkable, by turns tender, brash, and amusing. Costello wants to be a writer, but she has a habit of undermining herself when things go wrong, acting impulsively and letting her emotions spill out. Cooper gives us all of Costello, from her sweet love for her daughter and her pride at having gotten sober to her moments of explosive rage. She’s particularly powerful in evoking Costello’s deep cynicism, which she clings to when she goes into sex work to jumpstart her finances and has to cope with the desires of twisted men. You root for Cooper’s Costello, even when you cringe at her behavior.

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The title phrase for the series, which airs Mondays at 10 p.m., is also the title of Tom Waits’s 1985 album. Waits explained its meaning to Spin magazine that year: “You know dogs in the rain lose their way back home. They even seem to look up at you and ask if you can help them get back home. ‘Cause after it rains, every place they peed on has been washed out.” It’s the perfect way to describe the subject of this extraordinary show, as Costello, so tenacious and bold and broken, persists in her search to find her place in the world.

RAIN DOGS

Starring: Daisy May Cooper, Jack Farthing, Fleur Tashjian, Ronke Adekoluejo, Adrian Edmondson.

On: HBO. Mondays at 10 p.m.


Matthew Gilbert can be reached at matthew.gilbert@globe.com. Follow him @MatthewGilbert.