Inside Men debuts tonight on BBC America at 10 p.m. Eastern.
It’s too early yet to assess the influence of Breaking Bad on the pop cultural landscape, but Inside Men, BBC America’s fantastically gripping new heist series, suggests that Walter White’s unforgettable metamorphosis into a ruthless meth kingpin has spawned an irresistible and timely new television sub-genre: the story of the mild-mannered everyman who goes rogue. That’s not to say that Inside Men isn’t very much its own creation—it is—merely that it traces a similar narrative arc, one that somehow seems particularly appealing in these gloomy economic times.
Like seemingly every heist ever undertaken on the large or small screen, Inside Men opens in a parking garage. John Coniston (Steven Mackintosh)—timid, ginger-haired, and entirely unremarkable—is approaching his sensible family station wagon when, suddenly, he’s attacked by a gang of men wearing identical creepy rubber masks. At gunpoint, John is forced to take the masked men to the place he works—which appears to be nothing but a giant warehouse filled with cash. In the ensuing melee, a handsome young security guard named Chris (Ashley Walters) is shot. As the younger man lies in a pool of his blood, barely clinging to life, John spots a rifle that’s been dropped by one of the robbers. He eyes the weapon, then, after a moment of contemplation, grabs it. John is about to fight back—or so we’re meant to believe. The image freezes and a title flashes on the screen: September.
Over the ensuing four episodes of Inside Men (all of which were written by Tony Basgallop and directed by James Kent), we learn the situation is far more complicated than that. The protracted opening sequence, which runs nearly 10 minutes in length, is violent, tense, and infused with a potent sense of chaos. There’s little to no explanation of what’s unfolding before us, and the confusion only adds to the anxiety of it all: Who are these people? And just where the hell are we?
But from there, the story flashes back to January, and we’re introduced to the same set of characters in more quotidian settings. In an interview with an adoption agent, John and his wife, Kirsty (Nicola Walker), explain just what it is that he does in his line of work: He’s the manager of a counting house, a place where cash-centric businesses like supermarkets and banks send their loot to be tallied. “It really isn’t as exciting as it sounds,” Kirsty assures the agent. And she’s right, because John is, quite literally, a bean-counter, the guy whose job it is to make sure all the spreadsheets add up correctly. The scene is a clever way to get a bit of exposition out of the way while also filling in John’s emotional back-story: John’s a man with a tedious job and a gaping hole in his family life.
To make matters worse, we soon discover that John is something of a pushover at work. Despite moving millions of pounds every day, he withdraws money from his own bank account in order to cover up a £240 shortfall. And when he catches one of his employees, an innocent-looking Polish teenager named Dita (Leila Mimmack), pinching a bill, he doesn’t have the balls to fire her himself.
He leaves that task to Chris, the unfortunate security guard we saw earlier. He escorts her out of the building, and an unlikely romance blossoms between the two. He’s a quiet but entirely decent guy, and it’s hard not to feel dread about what we know is going to happen to him. Like John, Chris is facing his own set of personal demons: an alcoholic mother who meddles with his love life and a father in prison. Motivated by his blossoming relationship with Dita and the need to move out of his mother’s house, Chris asks John for a raise. Ever the company man, John replies that Chris has already reach the top of his pay scale, and he’d have to create a new position in order to increase his salary. “I promise to try,” he tells Chris meekly. It’s hard to believe he means it.
Rounding out the central cast of characters is Marcus. He’s a consummate schemer, the guy who has always got some plan to get rich quick that never quite comes to fruition. His latest failed get-rich-quick plot is a salon he opened with his brash, big-haired girlfriend, Gina (Kierston Wareing). The business is floundering, and Marcus needs to figure out a way to pay the rent. He approaches his work buddy, Chris, with an idea to smuggle a relatively small amount of cash—a mere £50,000—out of the building.
Soon enough, John discovers their plan and, at the risk of divulging too much, let’s just say things get considerably more complicated from there. (I probably shouldn’t be so worried about giving away the plot; the title alone is something of a spoiler.) What Inside Men does so well is to flesh out each man’s distinct motivation for getting involved in the scheme they eventually concoct. As the series progresses, cutting back and forth between the aftermath of the heist and the events leading up to it, each of the characters develops in unexpected yet convincing ways. Chris is the would-be family man desperate to be rid of his dysfunctional mother so he can live a normal life. Marcus, with his beefy biceps and crooked teeth, looks the part of a thug, but he proves too dopey and tactless to be an effective criminal. He’s more puppy dog than pitbull. John is the exact reverse, the quiet, dutiful, emasculated guy with vast reserves of anger bubbling just below his bland surface.
In a series full of surprising and uniformly excellent performances, Mackintosh’s is the most astonishing. It’s quiet, distinguished by minute gestures that say multitudes about his character. Physically, he’s also perfect for the part, with his delicate but unmemorable features, slight build, and light hair; He’s got one of those faces you wouldn’t be able to pick out of a line-up. It’s a quality that may just come in handy down the line.
- I’ll be writing about Inside Men from week to week. Follow along! Though it has its flaws, especially toward the end (alas), it’s well worth watching.