8:45am PT by Tim Goodman
Critic's Notebook: FX's Australian Import 'Mr Inbetween' Is One of 2018's Best Shows So Far
A very bad man does very great things in a new series for FX and, in the process, has restored my faith in Australian television.
This week I set out to review a Sundance Now series called Dead Lucky, created in Australia and starring Rachel Griffiths. Two things of note here — Sundance Now usually gets its hooks into really good international fare and Griffiths is a very good actress (and it was a chance to see her with her natural Australian accent).
It didn't go well.
Dead Lucky is just flat-out bad. It's a tired cop series with overly broad characters, poor writing and a decided lack of imagination. What little I saw of it — right about 42 minutes, to be precise — was just warmed-over American television. If it took any lessons from our crime dramas, they were unfortunately mediocre ones. Better to choose your influences more wisely in the future. Griffiths stood out, but the pilot didn't have the material to make me slog to the end of it. In the Peak TV era, life is simply too short.
So why was I checking in on Australian television and what does FX have to do with this?
Well, even if we're drowning in high-end quality as this Platinum Age of Television continues to play out, it's important to keep an eye on what's going on internationally because, to be clear, a lot of great television comes from other countries. Having given up on Dead Lucky, I moved over to FX's upcoming collaboration with the Australian television series Mr Inbetween (there's no period after Mr, which also flummoxed fellow critic Dan Fienberg, who reviewed the first three of six episodes for THR when they premiered at as part of the Indie Episodic program slate at the Sundance Film Festival in January).
Mr Inbetween was nothing short of a stunning revelation. (So, great job, Australia — you're back.) Created and written by Scott Ryan, who also plays the lead character, Ray, a hitman facing something of a midlife crisis — but mostly just handling his business while suffering no fools — Mr Inbetween is a coming out of sorts for Ryan as an exceptional talent. He's magnetic in every scene and, more impressively, as a writer he's crafted something fresh and unpredictable from a well worn form. We've all seen the tale of burned-out (or burning out) hired hitmen feeling the edges of their career and craft, wondering how to either keep going and keep alive or get out entirely and what that might look like.
Ray is 40 years old, divorced, with an eight-year-old daughter, Brittany (Chika Yasumura, a little scene-stealer), reminding him of what's still of value in the world. He's got an older brother, Bruce (Nicholas Cassim), who is suffering from a muscular disease and reluctantly seeks Ray's help. And after what appears to be some time away from romantic entanglements (Ray's wife is already remarried), Ray finds a new girlfriend in Ally (Brooke Satchwell), an EMT he meets when their dogs bond.
What this does, of course, is complicate the life of a hitman. While his brother knows what he does, his daughter of course doesn't — and charges him for every swear word he utters. Ally has no idea about Ray's life, but the one time she sees some of his rage surface in a confrontation with two dudes in a parking lot, it frightens her. If his job spills into his life, Ray is going to have a lot of emotional mess to clean up.
With director and short-film maestro Nash Edgerton (Gringo) directing all the episodes, Mr Inbetween has a formidable duo creating a story that's lean, taut and surprising. In fact, the greatest achievement here might be how Edgerton and Ryan have crafted a master class of storytelling, with each of the six episodes running 26 minutes or less (two at 23 minutes), which is both rare and astonishing. (In fact, another foreign import, Netflix's British-based The End Of the F***ing World, is the only other series that can truly compete with Mr Inbetween at getting so much done in so little time — a trick any number of bloated dramas could learn from.)
As a writer, Ryan has a knack for being able to make full episodes tense, funny, touching and tinged with melancholy — a superb skill even before you factor in the 26-minutes-and-under running time, which is mind-blowing. There's a world in Mr Inbetween that Ryan could and should explore further — the episodes fly by and leave you wanting more (FX is airing two back-to-back over the course of three weeks, right after its latest series, Mayans, at 10 p.m. starting Sept. 25).
As an actor, Ryan manages here to be magnetic and menacing, funny, zen in the face of chaos and all of this burnished with some of that melancholy mentioned earlier. You can't take your eyes off of him. Ray's got a lot on his plate and it's wearing him down. Ryan is able to convince you that Ray's actually fine when he's on the job handling business, even when things go sideways. It's that nagging realization that his daughter, his ailing brother and his new girlfriend are all vulnerable in this relationship because of what Ray does for a living (and does extremely well, violently and efficiently, with just enough humor to catch people off guard). Few faces have been as instantly iconic as Ryan's, with his shaved head, smirk and wide, semi-sad eyes that slowly track and calculate every situation he's in. He's immediately likable despite the line of work — not an easy feat.
Shot entirely in Australia and produced by Blue Tongue Films, Jungle Entertainment, in association with FX Networks, Screen Australia and Create NSW, Mr Inbetween is a series that's not nearly done when the sixth episode wraps. Ryan and Edgerton clearly need to continue the story and FX needs to keep a hand in this so viewers in the States can keep up with it. Because here's the thing — even though FX has a stable of great series, Mr Inbetween fits in with their very best efforts. It's already one of my favorite series of 2018 and it ends all too soon. The channel should certainly stay in business with Ryan, who hopefully understands what he's got in this character and the potential of the world-building that surrounds him.