Since 2007, TV Club has dissected television episode by episode. Beginning this September, The A.V. Club will also step back to take a wider view in our new TV Reviews section. With pre-air reviews of new shows, returning favorites, and noteworthy finales, TV Reviews doesn’t replace TV Club—as usual, some shows will get the weekly treatment—but it adds a look at a bigger picture.
The Wrong Mans, Hulu’s latest original series (which debuted in the United Kingdom earlier in the fall but was co-produced by the American streaming service), is almost certainly the first Hitchcockian thriller sitcom that doubles as a critique of the global security state. In attempting to blend that many different tones together, it’s inevitable that not everything will work, but the unassuming series pulls off so many of them that it’s tempting to just give it a pass on the things that flop around a bit.
The series hails from James Corden—a talented and funny writer-actor who co-created Gavin & Stacey and won a Tony Award for his work in One Man, Two Guvnors—and one of Corden’s occasional co-stars on Gavin, Matthew Baynton. The show follows Bayton—and eventually Corden—after the former finds a mysterious cell phone on the side of the road, only to hear an unknown voice threatening someone else’s wife. From there, Baynton reluctantly recruits sad, friendless mailroom boy Corden, and the two get drawn ever deeper into a web of conspiracy, murder, and espionage.
Though action-comedy works well on the big screen, it’s not a tone that TV goes in for. When it does, it’s usually in the vein of something like Chuck, where the show treats the action with the same tone as the comedy, insisting that nothing will go wrong because this is a jokey kind of show. The Wrong Mans sets a much more difficult challenge for itself: It wants to work both as a workplace comedy about two unlikely friends who meet due to extraordinary circumstances and as a straightforward thriller in the vein of North By Northwest. To be sure, there are moments when the overarching plot becomes needlessly complicated, with too many moving parts, but the show mostly pulls everything together in the end (mostly).
The series is at its best in its dizzyingly fun third and fifth episodes, which introduce a stereotypical Hitchcock blonde/femme fatale and MI-5 into the mix. They also subtly indicate just how difficult it is to pull off a mistaken-identity thriller set in contemporary times, where everyone can be tracked all of the time and hiding from the government is much harder than hiding from anyone else. The series’ secret agents mostly abuse their surveillance powers to pursue personal agendas and carry out pointless vendettas, and while this is usually funny, it’s also pointed. Think, the show is asking, of what you might do if all of this power was in your hands? Wouldn’t you abuse it just a little?
The show is stylishly shot by Jim Field Smith—though he over-relies on lens flare to give everything a hyper-modern look, particularly in the second episode—and the action sequences are remarkably clear in terms of geography and who’s doing what to whom. The scripts, by Corden, Baynton, and Tom Basden, are filled with great lines and banter between the two leads, and the show does an excellent job avoiding the pitfall of a lifeless supporting cast by quickly sketching in broad comic and action types and letting the audience do most of the work. Dawn French, in particular, is very funny in a thankless role as Corden’s mother, while Basden himself essays Baynton’s annoying co-worker to great effect. Only Sarah Solemani, as Baynton’s ex-girlfriend, fails to cohere as a character, and that’s more on the writers making her a generic love interest. (The series tends to slot its female characters into archetypes, but that’s appropriate for a spoof on the thriller genre.)
The Wrong Mans has its problems here and there—particularly in a fourth episode that goes far too broad in its comedy and in the moments of the season finale when it leans far too heavily on sentimentality it hasn’t remotely earned—but when it seems to be wandering off-course, it can always return to Baynton and Corden, get some big laughs from them, then jet off to the next plot point on the back of a stylish fight sequence or car chase. (To give viewers an idea of what to expect, the series has great fun with the idea that Corden’s character’s last name is “Bourne.”)
The many tones should produce whiplash, but the series works because it’s always able to go back to its central idea of a lower-level government employee living in a sleepy small town and getting wrapped up in something bigger than he would ever have anticipated. That’s not a new idea, by any means, but it’s still a compelling one, and when The Wrong Mans pulls off its blend of workplace comedy and straightforward action, or when it’s subtly winking at all of the intrusions its characters will put up with in the name of “security,” there’s really nothing else quite like it.