Erik Adams: The Wrong Mans is a fitting show to consider as 2013 winds down. And that’s not just because of the less-than-secret surveillance secrets that came to light in recent months: At the end of a year when binge-viewing became a full-fledged cultural phenomenon and streaming outlets like Hulu led the television vanguard, “What is a TV show?” became an increasingly relevant question. What still makes this mode of storytelling unique, and how are those unique qualities morphing and mutating in light of 13-hour Orange Is The New Black benders or personal Breaking Bad marathons? How is the twisty-turny fourth season of Arrested Development not just a very, very long movie starring the Bluth family? Are shows still being made to be enjoyed 30 minutes at a time, or, as you suggested a week ago, Sonia, would The Wrong Mans have been better served by a slimmer runtime, a more streamlined conspiracy, and a theatrical release?
After watching all six episodes of The Wrong Mans, I’d answer that question in the negative. The series certainly has cinematic aspirations—that’s more evident in “Running Mans” than in any other previous episode of the show. The series’ unrelenting momentum and its tight focus on Sam and Phil means we get to know their world in a manner that’s more akin to a movie as well. Berkshire County and the supporting cast are backdrops and props in the story of two guys discovering ingenuity and bravery masked by years of idling.
But “Running Mans” firmly plants The Wrong Mans’ feet on televised soil. The particulars of the plot might make more sense if you watch each episode back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back, but a tightly plotted conspiracy is a film thriller’s game. The Wrong Mans begins as a shaggy-dog story, and the room to move Sam from car-crash witness to accidental kidnapper to accused killer to enemy of the state allows that story to be its absolute shaggiest. Television is a character’s medium, and even though The Wrong Mans doesn’t flesh out the people surrounding Sam and Phil, we’ve been given a spectacular sense of who these guys truly are by the end of the season finale. In MI-5 parlance, just consider the rest “collateral damage.”
“Running Mans” has a greater amount of responsibility than the average season finale. After drilling into the marrow of intersecting underhanded deals, spectacular payoff is expected. It’s that explosion Phil demands after his “best friend” fist bump with Sam: The five preceding episodes lit the fuse, so Walker’s covert mission, the Green Regeneration Project, and the blackmailing of public figures all need to produce loud noises and bright flashes. And they do—to an extent. Daring escapes are made, and multiple days are saved with badass panache, all of which is shot through with The Wrong Mans’ fundamental comedic question: “How would everyday people react to the ‘everyday’ of James Bond or Jason Bourne?” Immediately following my pick for the funniest episode of the season, “Running Mans” is The Wrong Mans’ most straightforward actioner—which prompts some awkwardness with tone once Lizzie’s life is endangered alongside Sam and Phil’s.
But I just love what the episode does for its protagonists. Mathew Baynton and James Corden’s characters are the two most assured facets of the show, and “Running Mans” puts that confidence to tremendous use. There’s a danger that a story like The Wrong Mans could devolve into pulpy wish fulfillment, but everything that Sam and Phil achieve in “Running Mans” was a part of these characters all along: His exploits with model trains demonstrate that Phil is capable of pulling off something as complicated as the invisible ink bait-and-switch; Sam gets the more run-of-the-mill, Tim Canterbury/Nick Miller “you’ve got motivation when you want to be motivated” outcome, but there’s still an earned satisfaction to that conclusion. The evolution of Phil is The Wrong Mans’ true achievement; with each passing episode, I increasingly regretted writing his early showings as secondhand Nick Frost stuff. By the time of the finale’s go-kart callback, the man who is (but isn’t) Bourne was my favorite part of the show.
I was intrigued by your response to the middle of The Wrong Mans’ first season, Sonia, so I’m curious to hear how you responded to the finale. If viewed through a character-based lens, do you still think The Wrong Mans would’ve worked better as a movie? And what do you think of “Running Mans”’ treatment of Lizzie? You noted that Sam begins to “respect Lizzie’s autonomy” in “Wanted Mans”—does Sam coming to her rescue in the airplane hangar reverse that?
Sonia Saraiya: Well, Erik, we disagree. I finished “Running Mans” thinking, more than ever, that the tale of Sam and Phil, accidental heroes, should have been a comic film. I think you make good points, but the show never felt must-watch to me—beyond the idea that since I’d already sunk a a few hours into it, I might as well see how it plays out.
I’m fascinated that you think Phil is a good character. I consistently thought he was funny, but I never thought of him as a character, either. I discussed this a bit last week, but in my mind these are caricatures more than characters. Phil functions in the same role that a talking-animal sidekick does in an animated film: comic relief. The callback to the train set is interesting, I’ll grant you. But most of the time, it seems like Phil’s contribution is just chaos and yelling, which is funny, in its way, but not deeply so.
I’m sounding very negative right now, but I felt similarly about Sam. I liked him, but I never really cared, either. Sam’s sudden elevation to hero status is a development granted to him from the outside—he doesn’t grow into a character. The action serves not to develop these characters, but rather to expose them for who they truly are, underneath their menial or bureaucratic labor. It’s like an extended daydream written by a cubicle-worker—the main character is just a Mary Sue. Even right down to rescuing the pretty coworker.
The stakes around Lizzie were the only stakes I bought during the run of the show, so to answer your question… I really don’t know. She’s more of a character than a lot of love interests are, and there are some twists to the formula that make her interesting. I liked the bit at the end where she doesn’t just throw herself at Sam, but rather acknowledges that she still has doubts, but she’s willing to try. It’s the kind of reasonable communication we might expect from a grown-up action show, but it’s not a lot beyond that.
I know I’m being pretty critical of this show, which is a very silly, light show, all things considered. But nothing it did particularly resonated with me emotionally, and that’s one of the many ways I gauge whether or not a show is succeeding. It’s clever, but it lacks depth.
But: I think that’s the point. You brought up binge-watching, Erik, and I think that’s the most important point to make about Wrong Mans. As deficient as it is in most ways, it serves one particular function rather well: It’s a great, easy binge-watch. The plot seems to gloss over complication or detail because I imagine the producers expect the viewers to, as well; if you’re leaving Hulu Plus on while working or watching all six episodes one Sunday while you’re lying on the couch texting, something with a very low threshold is exactly what you want. Our prestige dramas—and increasingly, our best comedies—require careful attention. But that isn’t all we need from television. Sometimes we need knowing what you see when you look up at the screen.
I still rather strongly believe that even the writers and producers of Wrong Mans would have been happy making a film, if funding for a slight, silly film were easier to get these days. They’re spoofing Bond and Bourne and those ridiculous Transformer movies—they’re spoofing spoofs, like Lethal Weapon and Shaun Of The Dead (I, too, saw a lesser mimicry of Simon Pegg and Nick Frost’s relationship). They want a helicopter with a machine gun strapped to it, and car stunts, and a neat resolution at the end with a hint towards a sequel. That’s cinema. If they wanted to be a television show, I think Wrong Mans would have worked much, much harder to develop its peripheral characters, so it could build a sitcom: like Get Smart and Archer, which are both workplace comedies with spies just thrown in for good measure. Ultimately, I feel that the show didn’t really succeed as either a longer film or a shorter show, but rather just as something Hulu could put on the air that satisfied the basic requirements of a Hulu show: serial (but only for a few episodes), funny (but not offensive), engaging (but not absorbing). This is a show tailored to a behavior, instead of to an idea. That’s not necessarily, like, bad, but I think it’s important to recognize the show for what it is.
EA: I wonder if our differing opinions of the show have anything to do with the different ways in which we viewed it. You’ve been watching one episode a week for nearly a month, drilling into the particulars every Monday. I, on the other hand, watched the first two episodes upon release, then caught up with the final four at my leisure in various locations: Over lunch at work, at the gym, on an airplane. On that kind of schedule, The Wrong Mans is an amusing trifle with some impressive set pieces and neat riffs on blockbuster tropes. As a regular part of a balanced TV diet—maybe not so much.
Though it’s more of a stick-to-your-ribs experience than an essential-vitamins-and-nutrients type of TV dinner, I hope I get a chance to see what happens to Sam and Phil after that blinking device does whatever blinking devices like that do to cars. (It doesn’t have to be a bomb—maybe it’s an odometer Phil’s mom is using to make sure her beloved son isn’t putting too much mileage on the car.) It could be a perceived weakness of The Wrong Mans that one of its leads must always be mentioned in the same breath as the other—but I just think that speaks to what this show’s truly about: friendship. Two guys leading dull, dreary existences on their own team up and have the adventure of a lifetime. “Listening to you was the biggest mistake I made,” Sam tells Phil in the second act of “Running Mans”—which isn’t strictly true, because getting so blasted that he had to walk to work one morning was the biggest mistake Sam made. But listening to Phil did lead him down the rabbit hole into the seedy underbelly of Berkshire County.
These guys are a team now, with the fire-engine red racing suits to prove it. And also six episodes of comic misadventures, throughout which they largely stick side by side, and not just to serve the narrative. Sam would and has taken a bullet for Phil. I feel an honest hint of friendship from Baynton and Corden. That could be a contact high from the duo’s real-world partnership, but I think it’s more a result of the relationship they foster among all the bang-ups, smash-ups, and blow-ups of The Wrong Mans.
SS: I’ll take your word for it. I found myself wearied by the final gag. It sounds like this version of buddy-comedy just isn’t my cup of tea. I’m glad you found the strengths in The Wrong Mans, but I’m happy to bid farewell to our bumbling heroes.
Erik’s episode grade: B
Erik’s season grade: B+
Sonia’s episode grade: C+
Sonia’s season grade: C+