Unlike the film thrillers in which they’re steeped, the opening episodes of Matthew Baynton and James Corden’s The Wrong Mans don’t have the advantage of luxuriating in their protagonist’s everyday life. Sam Pinkett isn’t living a normal day when a switch is flipped and suddenly he’s living the Hitchcockian life: The Wrong Mans just goes. An accident that may or may not be his fault puts a strange phone in Sam’s possession; when he answers a call from an unidentified number, the voice on the other end threatens to kill his wife if a ransom isn’t delivered. But Sam doesn’t have a wife. And neither, apparently, does the man who was driving the car. Zoom: Off to the conspiracy-thriller races.
But that type of beginning is its own kind of advantage. The Wrong Mans positions its first two episodes as the propulsive opening acts of a mistaken-identity thriller. That thriller just happens to take place among civil servants in a sleepy English suburb. And so time is both of the essence and on the side of The Wrong Mans: The cold open of the premiere, “Wrong Mans,” lights a fire under the show, but the three hours at the series’ disposal allow the thriller material to bob in and out of Sam’s workaday life. The explosive cold open functions like “Wrong Mans” and its follow-up, “Bad Mans,” in microcosm. There may be no better starting pistol for your unassuming action comedy than Belle & Sebastian’s “Get Me Away From Here I’m Dying.”
And by mixing those two worlds, rather than jackknifing Sam’s reality, the tension—both dramatic and comedic—ratchets marvelously. Portent abounds whether Sam is being threatened by his boss at the Berkshire County Council or by the mystery men who are out for the same money (for entirely different reasons). Like any good action comedy, the humor here is in the disconnect between the stakes. Sam wakes up hungover on a day in which the most important thing he needs to do is think of a slogan for Bracknell County. Just a couple of sentences, nice and pithy. But by the next sunrise, he’ll have narrowly avoided amputation, saved a woman from an execution-style death, and taken his very first hostage. For what it’s worth, he’ll also have written that damn slogan—an achievement that’s treated with the same weight as an escape he previously improvised with the use of a match.
It feels like a no-brainer, considering he co-created and co-wrote the series, but Baynton is perfectly cast as the schmuck in peril. In “Wrong Mans”’ pivotal mens’ room (mans’ room?) scene—in which The Wrong Mans goes from a solo operation to a partnership in comedic jeopardy—all he needs to broadcast Sam’s terror is an expressive pair of eyes. Corden, though a gifted bumbler, makes less of a mark in these episodes. It might just be that the part he’s written for himself has already been refined by his countryman Nick Frost—twice. His Phil demonstrates an eagerness to jump into the action that he shares with Frost’s two best characters, Danny from Hot Fuzz and Mike from Spaced. The only difference here seems to be that Phil hasn’t memorized the complete Patrick Swayze filmography. But he’s an important catalyst within The Wrong Mans’ powder keg nonetheless: A loner in a dead-end job whose motivations are just as unexplainable as anyone else’s.
But what is explainable at this point? Dapper Parrothead Nick Stevens (Nick Moran) owes £800,000 to Mr. Lau (Benedict Wong), a sum that was entrusted with the bagman whose clumsiness with mobile technology puts The Wrong Man’s plot in motion. What the show gets so spectacularly correct in these opening chapters is the sense that none of the information being presented is definitive. The man whose car accident Sam witnesses is played off as a MacGuffin in “Wrong Mans,” but we’re not deep enough into the series to take that revelation at its word. That fiery wreck could still be part of the grand scheme. Every character we’ve met is still a suspect. This thing could (and probably will) go all the way to the top of the Bracknell council’s push for a “big future.”
Which is why it’s just as important that our understanding of the first two episode’s events can be traced back to a single decision by Sam. Not the decision to listen to Phil, and not even the decision to answer the phone—but the boneheaded impulse to get drunk the night before his big day at the office. No booze, no walk, no car crash, no phone. By taking the car crash out of the equation, “Wrong Mans” throws us off the scent of that conclusion, but Lau showing up at the council offices in “Bad Mans” brings it back home: No matter the crazy heights to which the show climbs, Sam and his fish-out-of-water reactions are here to anchor the show. These two episodes contain a lot of close calls and a lot of coincidence, but to make this show work, the massive tangle of plot and conspiracy has to trace back to one man being in the wrong place at the wrong time. On that count, at least, The Wrong Mans is so far, so good.
“Wrong Mans”: B
“Bad Mans”: B+
- Welcome to The A.V. Club’s coverage of The Wrong Mans. Bingers looking for a big-picture view on the series can head to Todd VanDerWerff’s pre-air review; in this space, we’ll be taking the episodes as they’re released on Hulu. So, Hulu Plus users and British users, we beseech you: If you must bring up a spoiler in the comments, mark it clearly. Your A.V. Club staff and your fellow readers thank you in advance. Sonia Saraiya will be here next week to take you through episode three, “Dead Mans”—she’ll be handling the next two episodes after that, after which she and I will discuss the season finale, Crosstalk style, on December 9.