Friday, January 2, 2015

Rolling Deep in 2015: James Corden and The Wrong Mans

Mathew Baynton and James Corden star in The Wrong Mans.

The final weeks of 2014 were bittersweet. Two of the smartest, most original shows in late night television – Comedy Central's The Colbert Report and CBS's The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson – aired their final episodes within hours of one another. Though the shows could not be more different – the first, with tightly-written and sharp political satire, and the second loosely improvisational, sublimely ridiculous and deliberately untopical – their two stars may have been the most genuine late night hosts ever to sit behind a desk. Even if "Stephen Colbert", the character Colbert played so brilliantly for 9+ years, has taken his last bow, we certainly haven't seen the last of Stephen Colbert (though the precise date of his taking over for David Letterman on CBS's The Late Show has still to be announced). However, I can't express how deeply I will miss Craig Ferguson's intimate, deeply human presence on my TV screen, perhaps more especially his tour de force chemistry with "Geoff Peterson", the gay robot skeleton sidekick voiced so brilliantly by comedian Josh Robert Thompson for the past four years. Ferguson and Thompson were like nothing else on American late night television. But, at the same time, these closing doors open others for the coming year.  The Late Late Show will remain a fixture on CBS, as the also-accented James Corden takes over hosting duties in March. Even though we have been given tantalizingly little about what Corden's version of the show will look like, the choice of the British comedian for the job reveals that someone at CBS is doing their job right. Corden is a Tony- and BAFTA-award winning actor and writer, a man whose face an average North American viewer may recognize but whose name won't ring any bells. Across the pond in the UK, he's most famous for co-starring and co-creating Gavin & Stacey, a wildly popular BBC romantic comedy that aired 2007-2010 – though his starring turn opposite Meryl Streep in the recently released film adaptation of Into the Woods should draw some much deserved attention. (Fellow Critics at Large's writer Steve Vineberg has called Corden alternately "irresistible" and "irrepressible" and there is no doubt he is both.) Fortunately, even for those without a taste for Sondheim or fractured fairy tales, there is a simple way to get a glimpse into what Corden promises to bring to American television: tune into Hulu and check out James Corden's wildly entertaining The Wrong Mans, which launched its second season last week.

Co-produced by the American on-demand streaming service Hulu and England's BBC Two, The Wrong Mans is a comedy/thriller co-created and co-written by Corden and his on-screen co-star Mathew Baynton (Horrible Histories). Taking cues from the likes of Simon Pegg and Alfred Hitchcock, The Wrong Mans tells the story of two underachieving schlubs Sam (Baynton) and Phil (Corden) who stumble out of their mundane civil service lives – "a town planning and noise guidance advisor for Berkshire County Council [and] a 31-year-old mail distribution assistant who lives with his mum" – into a world of rogue MI-5 agents, political corruption, femmes fatales, and mobsters. The plot begins small – with the hapless and hungover Sam witnessing a near-fatal car crash and inadvertently answering an abandoned cell phone – and build bigger and bigger as the story winds itself through every nook and cranny of his small Berkshire County hamlet. Amazingly, the story manages to blend all of these elements while remaining, in a word, hilarious.

James Corden and Mathew Baynton in The Wrong Mans

Director Jim Field Smith (Episodes) embraced the show's cinematic ambitions, describing it as "a movie broken out into six parts," and even on the small screen the series more than lives up to that ambition. Smith – who thankfully is also on board for the series' second season – offers some of the most beautifully shot television since Channel 4's ambitious Utopia, except where the latter went for sharp colours, The Wrong Mans paints in the rich greys and muted tones of the rainy outskirts of London. The 6-episode first season – which first aired last fall – boasts some of the strongest writing for a television series I've seen in years. Each episode contains its own labyrinthine intrigue, which neatly wraps itself up at the end of a half hour even as it builds towards a larger and impressively well-constructed seasonal arc. With Smith at the helm, Corden and Baynton reveal themselves as masters of timing and physical comedy and as impresarios of genuine suspense (even in a world in where the hero can get away with a catchphrase like "Who wants to go go-karting?"). The writing is sharp and funny and the thrills are real, all of which is underscored by the charm and humanity of the two leads, the titular "mans": good people, burdened by everyday frustrations, aborted desires, and awkward social skills. Even as the plot becomes more intricate and unbelievable, their grounded characters, and their endearing and developing on-screen friendship, keep the show's feet planted firmly on terra firma.

The second season takes the series' cinematic ambitions to the next "logical" step – airing its whole 2-hour story in two one-hour parts last week on BBC Two. (Hulu opted to break the series into four half-hour episodes.) Our boys, fresh off last year's adventure, find themselves with a price on their heads and forced into witness relocation in rural Texas. With a story that crosses oceans and brings some old faces along (Sarah Solemani as Sam's ex-girlfriend and Dawn French as Phil's mum) to meet new though perhaps still familiar ones (including a nice role for The Big Bang Theory's John Ross Bowie, albeit without his signature lisp, as a dodgy lawyer the boys meet in Texas), the show remains as dark, and darkly funny, as the first season. Both seasons are addictively fun.

As comedian and as writer, Corden is well prepared to take North America by storm – and even a diehard Craig Ferguson fan like myself is eager to see what's in store come March. If what's past is even partly prologue, 2015 just may be the year of James Corden.

Both seasons of The Wrong Mans are currently available for streaming on Hulu and Hulu Plus. The second season aired on December 22 and 23 on BBC Two in the UK.

– Mark Clamen is a writer, critic, film programmer and lifelong television enthusiast. He lives in Toronto, where he often lectures on television, film, and popular culture.

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