Original Airdate: December 23, 2014 on BBC Two
I cheated a bit on this one. I bit the bullet and just watched the whole show. I figured with a heavily serialized show like this that’s under ten episodes long we’d all be the richer for it. I still plan on sticking to one episode if I get plunked down in a random episode of a much longer serialized drama, but with something as relatively compact as this I can make an exception. Let’s get right into it.
- Double duty as both a comedy and an action thriller. This is really the central feature of Mans. The show mashes up the classic comedic fish out of water plot with the action thriller standby where an innocent bystander is drawn into a web of intrigue because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time (hence the name.) The exceptional thing about Mans is that it manages both aspects of its premise fantastically. There are multiple belly laughs in every episode and the script is studded with excellent dialogue. The wrong mans in question are nebbishy civil servant Sam Pinkett (Mathew Baynton, Horrible Histories) and the slightly thick-witted but goofily enthusiastic mailroom subcontractor Phil Bourne (James Corden, The Late Late Show.) My first thought on seeing this duo in action was wondering if Mans was conceived as a Rick & Morty style tribute to Parks & Recreation, sending Ben Wyatt and Andy Dwyer off on a wacky adventure. I’ll talk more about the reasons the comedy in this show is so effective momentarily, but let’s just have a taste of that snappy dialogue. While enduring some unexpected downtime in the middle of their never-ending trails, Sam suggests the duo play a game where one of them quotes a line from a movie and the other tries to guess which movie the line is from. There is a pregnant pause followed by an “Ummmmmmm” from Phil. Finally, he comes up with “Welcome to Jurassic Park!” Sam: “Is it by any chance Jurassic Park?” The action thriller aspects of the plot are also very effective. I was surprised to find myself genuinely curious about how all the disparate pieces were going to fit together and how Sam & Phil were going to get out of the increasingly impossible situations they found themselves in, and more often than not those solutions made sense and were incredibly entertaining to see played out. In one bravado moment in the episode under review, Phil has opportunistically grabbed some snacks and drinks from vending machines the Mans were trapped inside. Phil has a charming tendency to focus on the moment in lieu of the bigger, much more dangerous picture, and here it pays off—he’s able to make a Coke & Mentos bomb at just the right moment and he creates a chance for the Mans to escape their current predicament. This is also nicely foreshadowed in an earlier bit of comedic awkwardness. This demonstrates how deftly the show weaves its two seemingly conflicting genres—not only is there a perfect, unexpected resolution to an incredibly dangerous solution involving powerful nerve agents and gun-wielding terrorists, it’s also characteristically droll and silly.
- Comedic versatility. The best comedies succeed by being able to effectively draw on a wide variety of techniques and approaches in order to remain fresh and to work on as many levels as possible, and this is a great example. There’s physical comedy and slapstick, there’s witty dialogue, there’s ridiculous situations, there’s character-driven jokes, there’s cultural references, there’s observational humor, there’s painfully awkward moments—it is British, after all. There’s also two thankfully brief interludes of toilet humor, about which the less said the better.
- Well-executed character arcs. Mans basically had this one handed to it on a silver platter–the regular guys who can’t manage to show up to work on time or move out of their mom’s house turn out to be brave and clever heroes who defeat the bad guys and save the day. The show does this rather gracefully, though. The pair are only able to succeed by playing off one another’s strengths—Sam’s rationality and risk assessment meet with Phil’s enthusiastic bravado and creative problem solving nicely. We also get to see them becoming more effective at using their skills as the series goes on. In episode 2, Phil is nearly able to bluff his way out of a confrontation with Nick Stevens (Nick Moran, Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels,) the angry, violent husband of a kidnapped woman, but Stevens trips him up. In episode 8, though, Phil delivers a speech to the terrorists that is able to quiet their growing suspicions that Sam and Phil are not in fact expert manufacturers of chemical weapons. Sam goes from being unable to look his ex-girlfriend/boss Lizzie Green (Sarah Solemani, Him & Her) in the eye, but at the end of season 1 he saves her after she gets kidnapped by the Russian mole embedded in MI5, Paul Smoke (Stephen Campbell Moore, Season of the Witch.)
- Commentary about the security state and governmental overreach. Smoke turns out to be the big bad of season 1, and he’s a good choice because his high-level position in MI5 gives him near limitless power. The Mans commandeer the car of Agent Jack Walker (Dougray Scott, Mission Impossible II) after he catches on to Smoke’s status as a double agent and Smoke promptly murders him. The car is equipped with GPS and multiple cameras. The Mans are at an instant disadvantage. This is only worsened once Smoke starts actively pursuing them and has seemingly unlimited resources, including giant helicopters, to chase down the Mans. He has a large squad of heavily armed troops ready to kill them at a moment’s notice, regardless of the fact that they’ve neither been arrested or charged with anything. Episode 8 puts a point on this when MI5 head Cox (Rebecca Front, The Thick of It) admits that the reason her organization buried all evidence of a Russian-planted car bomb compelled the Mans to fake their death and go into witness protection in Texas was because the agency did a cost-benefit analysis and decided that it simply wasn’t worth their time to prioritize keeping the Mans and their loved ones safe. I also recently watched the first episode of Black Mirror—freshly relevant in light of #BaeOfPigs—and I wonder why the British seem able to muster these kind of pointed critiques while America gets 24.
- Mawkish sentimentality. Isn’t it enough that this show succeeds at being a comedy and an action thriller? Why must it also attempt to be a half-baked romance? A while ago I read an interview with Michael Schur about season 3 of Parks. He says “This is just personal taste, but I get bored of comedy shows without any romance in them, because it’s just every week you tune in, and it’s a certain collection of jokes, and then you react to the jokes positively or negatively on an individual joke basis, and then you’re done, and nothing sticks with you…those are the things that make for good stories to me. It’s always my personal preference to have characters’ romantic lives be at the front of their stories.” Oh, good lord, I could not disagree more. I like Schur and he does excellent work, but romance plots strike me as boring and lazy just as often as they strike me as fresh and original. I find it mind-boggling that he’s inclined to dismiss comedies without romance as “boring.” 30 Rock showcased Liz and Jack’s disastrous romantic lives but never got very serious about it and should be commended for not giving in to a decidedly tired impulse to pair off its main cast members. The Simpsons and Seinfeld and Arrested Development all did just fine without giving into or actively subverting hacky will-they-or-won’t-they bullshit. Sure, it can work sometimes—a character’s love life can give us unique insight to their character and it obviously generates plenty of grist for the story mill. But it can also be completely gratuitous. In Mans it does absolutely nothing. Lizzie would work much better as part of an ensemble. In the early episodes where she’s Sam’s long-suffering boss, she’s great. In the later episodes where she exists as a plot device who’s spending all her time and energy hopelessly waiting for Sam to return, she not only becomes much less believable but also a conduit for tepid sentimentalism. We get more of this when Phil broods over his dead father. Obviously, these characters have personal lives and things that matter to them—they’d be flat without them. But why are they being foregrounded? Who gives a shit? I want to laugh. I want suspense and explosions. If I want romance or coping with loss there are entire shows that deal with these topics more extensively and more effectively. This seems like a hollow gesture at unnecessary emotional depth. This is a fun and entertaining show. It’s not Shakespeare. It really, really doesn’t need to be.
- Unearned explosive character conflict. Along similar lines, there’s a very dramatic scene in the season 1 finale that comes out of nowhere and doesn’t do anyone any favors. Sam learns Lizzie’s been kidnapped and wants to run off into the night to save her, and Phil’s unexpectedly cooler head suggests weighing the options and getting more information in order to be able to make the best possible intervention. Sam goes off the deep end and extensively dresses Phil down with vitriolic insults about his intelligence, personality and lack of friends. Um? This gets worse as we’re treated to a sappy musical montage as Sam heads towards his goal and the understandably dazed Phil reels. What is this, Bones? This is completely unnecessary and no groundwork has been laid whatsoever. Obviously Sam wants to save his ex and his decision-making skills are thrown off because Now It’s Personal. But he doesn’t have to viciously attack Phil! He can just leave and say something along the lines of “You can come if you want, but I’m going no matter what you say,” and then things proceed at pace. This is a naked grab at a big dramatic moment in an episode that already has plenty of big dramatic moments—Lizzie gets kidnapped, Sam gets shot, it’s the fucking finale and everything gets wrapped up nicely! WHYYYY
- Season 2. Season 1 of this show is great and I highly recommend it. Season 2…not so much. Some of the weaknesses of the show get worse and some of the good things fall by the wayside. The Mans are clumsily put into witness protection and sent to Texas, where all of season 1’s character development gets thrown by the wayside. Phil finds himself beloved by his co-workers and wildly in love with a woman named Rosa (Rosa Whitcher,) while Sam has become a bitter, bearded alcoholic because he’s in wuvvvv and he can’t be with his precious Lizzie. Gag. Just as we come to accept this new, unpleasant reality, though, it’s all hastily thrown by the wayside when Phil learns his mom Linda (Dawn French, The Vicar of Dibley) is on her deathbed and he must get home to be with her by any means necessary. What is the point of going to all the trouble of setting up this new status quo if you’re going to throw it all away 10 minutes in? Why not either have the Mans stay in England dealing with the fallout of season 1 or have a completely new story in Texas? Who knows. There’s still funny moments but they’re fewer and farther between. The plot is much less cohesive–season 1 artfully draws together seemingly disparate elements including a Chinese kidnapping gang, a Russian infiltrator into the MI5, an icy femme fatale and a shady land development scheme. Season 2 just throws a bunch of things out there that have nothing much to do with each other, making it less of an intricate action thriller and more of a picaresque. There’s also a soupçon of race panic when the Mans get thrown in prison, although the show is mercifully able to mostly resist rape jokes in favor of more characteristic awkwardness.
Final Episode Judgment: 5/10. While the second half of season 2 (it’s just two episodes) is better than the first half, it still doesn’t measure up to anything in season 1.
Final Series Judgment: 6/10. I wanted to give this show a higher rating. I really did. By episode 2 I was in love. But the longer things go the more threadbare it gets. Season 1 is definitely worth your time if you can tolerate a bit of sloppy sentimentality towards the end, but I can’t recommend season 2, which is such a big letdown after a tightly controlled and well-executed season 1. At nearly half of the run-time of the entire series, season 2 really hurts this show’s score.
NEXT TIME: 1975’s Paddington. Yes, as in the teddy bear in a duffle coat. Episodes are only 5 minutes long, so it may not be a particularly lengthy review.