My favorite kind of parody is the sort that simultaneously functions as both a comedy and a good example of the thing it’s parodying. It’s a much harder thing to pull off than a straight-up spoof, but it’s more satisfying in the moment, and long-term. It’s been a while since I got a belly laugh from “Galaxy Quest” (a “Star Trek” lampoon that was also the best “Star Trek” movie since “Wrath of Khan”) for instance, but I still get chills at the moment where Alan Rickman has to say his character’s stupid catchphrase and mean it. More than 25 years after I first saw “The Princess Bride,” Vizzini’s monologue about a land war in Asia still makes me chuckle, but the greatest pleasure comes from hearing Mandy Patinkin say with the deepest sincerity, “Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.”
I’m not going to put “The Wrong Mans,” a British comic thriller that Hulu is premiering today (two episodes are up now, the other four will debut over the next four Mondays, and Hulu Plus subscribers can watch them all now), on the level of those films. But the thriller part of it as just as much fun as the comic part.
The title evokes Hitchcock, and the story is very much in the “North by Northwest” vein of an ordinary man mistakenly sucked into an extraordinary situation. It just happens to be about a pair of guys for whom “ordinary” might be an aspirational adjective.
Stars Matthew Baynton and James Corden created the series, and they play the eponymous mans: Sam (Baynton) is a town planning and noise guidance adviser for a tiny British village on the precipice of economic collapse, a job that still puts him a few rungs above Phil (Corden), the much-mocked mail room assistant who still lives with his mother. After a breakup with girlfriend/boss Lizzie (Sarah Solemani), Sam has been sleepwalking through life, only to be woken when a car crashes in front of him and he finds a ringing phone by roadside.
“If you are not here by 5 o’clock,” the menacing voice on the other end warns him, “we will kill your wife.”
From there, Sam and Phil – the kind of overconfident sort who will always defend his latest stupid plan by insisting that it would be stupid if they didn’t try it – get caught up in a constantly-shifting ordeal involving Asian gangsters, a blonde femme fatale and a mysterious stranger played by Dougray Scott, among others. More often than not, people believe Sam when he tells them he’s not who they think he is, but they don’t care, because he had the bad luck to cross their path.
Baynton and Corden make a vintage comedy pairing – one slight and reserved, the other plus-sized and bombastic – and some of the series’ best moments involve them killing time in the middle of this elaborate web of conspiracies. (While waiting for the Scott character to finish a private meeting, Sam and Phil play movie quote trivia.)
But their banter and chemistry wouldn’t be enough to carry six episodes if “The Wrong Mans” didn’t also take itself seriously. There are real stakes – Sam and Phil witness a number of violent deaths – a coherent mystery that makes sense by the end, and a propulsive narrative style that pushes our misfit heroes from one problem to the next to the next. At 3 hours total, it’s about twice as long as a movie of this type might be (whether done straight or a spoof like Bill Murray in “The Man Who Knew Too Little”), and “The Wrong Mans” functions effectively as a TV series, with a specific problem for the guys to solve – say, procuring a music box from the mansion of a violent, erratic Russian gangster who’s in the middle of hosting a debauched house party – that then leads to a new problem to be dealt with in the episode after it. And even done on a relatively low budget, the show has a cool visual style that evokes any number of the straight thrillers it’s imitating. You won’t be mistaking an episode of “The Wrong Mans” for “24,” but it doesn’t just play as a joke, either.
Both Hulu and Netflix have done well to supplement their original series productions with foreign shows they’ve either acquired (like “Prisoners of War,” the Israeli show that inspired “Homeland”) or, in this case, co-produced. “The Wrong Mans” aired on BBC Two earlier this fall, and now it becomes a strong addition to the Hulu library.
I’ve enjoyed Corden in “Gavin & Stacey” and his occasional “Doctor Who” appearances, but I expected to be tired of the joke behind “The Wrong Mans” within an episode or two. Instead, I found myself engrossed enough in the story of who wanted Sam dead at any particular moment, and why, to keep watching until I made it all the way to the end and could appreciate just how well Baynton, Corden and company stuck the landing.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
NOTE: Usual spoiler rules apply here for shows that premiered in other countries first, though the fact that Hulu has made all six episodes available to Hulu Plus customers complicates things. Point being, if you’ve watched the whole thing, please keep plot discussion as vague as possible, and perhaps I’ll put up a discussion post in a few weeks once Hulu-non-plus has finished debuting all the episodes.