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So maybe this isn’t exactly the ideal moment to be releasing a TV series in which James Corden plays a seemingly nice guy who turns out to be prone to impatience and irritation. That the series, Amazon’s Mammals, also has a restaurant backdrop is a particularly poisonous version of serendipity.
It muddles one’s ability to make an assessment as ostensibly non-controversial as saying that Corden is actually really good in Mammals. I mean, before he was doing karaoke with celebrities in a trailer-pulled car or publicly smooching disgraced former White House press secretaries, Corden was a Tony-winning actor. I can still easily imagine people complaining that Corden’s performance in Mammals is annoying, or they can’t view his character as anything other than annoying, as if that’s not the intended nature of the character he’s playing.
Corden ends up carrying much of the humor (of which there’s ultimately only a little) and an impressive amount of the emotional resonance (of which there’s some, but it gets confusing) in Mammals, a strange and very writerly and theatrical little show that hails, fittingly enough, from acclaimed playwright Jez Butterworth (The Ferryman). That Mammals perhaps could have worked as well or better as a two-hour stage show, rather than in six, half-hour-ish installments, is a thoroughly worthy complaint. But after wondering at the purpose of the whole thing through its opening episodes, I quite enjoyed how its callbacks and bits of artificial structuring paid off.
Co-created by Butterworth and James Richardson, with Butterworth writing the entirety, Mammals stars Corden as Jamie, an apparently buzzy chef on the verge of opening his first solo restaurant. His restaurant, which is presented as a near-parody of every successful restaurant from 15 years ago, though nobody says as much, is named Amandine, after his lovely French wife (Melia Kreiling). Amandine is pregnant and, perhaps sensing the end of their freedom to do such things, the happy couple goes on a getaway to a cottage by the sea, a place so remote and so lovely it attracts a very funny guest star who only appears in the premiere. All signs point to Jamie and Amandine being very much in love, and if you want to get snarky about why a woman who looks like Amandine is with a man who looks like Jamie, it’s explained later in the series.
When Amandine miscarries, it’s up to Jamie to notify their friends and loved ones, a process that requires that he borrow her phone because only she has everybody’s contact information, or something to that effect. By now, you’re already champing at the bit to complain about “realism,” a critique that won’t get you very far in a show that builds an astonishingly large number of literary motifs around a plot that is quite minimal. Oh, and that plot? It’s instigated by the moment Jamie, again using Amandine’s phone, receives a dirty text from a man named “Paul.”
Has Amandine — gasp! — been having an affair? Jamie begins to investigate with the help of his best friend Jeff (Colin Morgan), an academic researching the mating ritual of voles, just in case you wanted ONE of the explanations for the show’s title. Again, so many literary motifs, though credit Butterworth and director Stephanie Laing with the small dose of restraint to not use Bloodhound Gang’s “The Bad Touch” — “You and me, baby, ain’t nothing but mammals/ So, let’s do it like they do on the Discovery Channel” — on a soundtrack dominated by more whimsical French stuff.
Jeff, incidentally, is married to Lue, a seemingly mousy shopkeeper who you might forget was part of the show entirely if she weren’t played by two-time Oscar nominee Sally Hawkins. Jeff and Lue aren’t exactly estranged, but some disconnect is happening between them and she’s taken solace in an odd choice of books that she found at her store.
The show layers its symbols and metaphors and reservations about traditional romance on thick, which only adds to the ridiculousness of anybody calling Corden’s performance broad. It absolutely is broad, but in a show dominated by characters who appear to be either hiding their romantic escapades or their innermost feelings, or both, Jamie is the person wearing his emotions on his sleeve, probably to his detriment. When he jokes, he jokes big. When he feels pain, he feels pain big. And when paranoia sets in, he gets suspicious big. Would you want James Corden as the protagonist of your understated parlor romance? Nah, but this isn’t an understated parlor romance — and Jamie may be the protagonist, but he isn’t something as simple as “wronged spouse.” Amazon was smart in scheduling Mammals for this week, because in structure and characterization, the show is very, very close to being a WASP-y take on Fleishman Is in Trouble, launching next week on Hulu.
Let’s just say that if you’re conflicted in your feelings toward everybody in Mammals, that’s the correct response, and Corden makes it easy to be sympathetic toward and then disquieted by Jamie, who comes across as a teddy bear one scene and a grizzly bear the next.
Jamie is mercurial in the way everybody in Mammals wants to be or, by laws of nature, should be. Kreiling makes Amandine almost innocently an object of desire for anybody on-screen, like she’s just reflecting their inner unevolved mammal. For their parts, Jeff and Lue are repressed, to the point at which there’s nothing animalistic about either of them anymore. He’s over-intellectualized his life, and she needs an escape, but not one that you would ever predict.
Put all of these characters together and the collisions are inevitable, and somebody’s bound to get hurt — possibly everybody. The performances are good enough that you worry about each character, though Hawkins’ halting weirdness felt the most unexplainable and therefore perhaps the realest (or least authored).
Butterworth’s touch is so omnipresent that I alternated being very amused and almost suffocated by how over-determined-by-its-author-God everything in Mammals is. Laing is an inspired choice to orchestrate the entire series because she’s very good at directing love stories that are prickly (Physical) or brainy (Made for Love) or corrosive (Divorce), and in a show that’s all of those things, the degree things hold together is largely attributable to her.
Like Fleishman, Mammals is a story that requires the full journey to really sink in. It’s deceptively simple — my notes read “So, um, what’s the point of all this?” several times — until it’s deceptively complicated. Corden, with all of his baggage, may be the perfect actor to keep viewers uncomfortable and on edge throughout, but this might be a moment at which many viewers just aren’t interested in going on an eyebrow-raising journey with him.
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