Edgar Wright casts a long shadow over “The Wrong Mans,” the new Hulu original series set to premiere in the U.S. on Monday, November 11th. In particular, Wright’s “Hot Fuzz” seems to be a formative influence on the half-hour comedic drama (co-produced by BBC Two), which stars Mathew Baynton and James Corden as Sam Pinkett and Phil Bourne, two office schlubs working for the town of Bracknell who get pulled into an unlikely action movie-worthy conspiracy involving spies, drug-addled Russians, Chinese mobsters and a kidnapping. Baynton (“Spy”) and Corden (“Gavin & Stacey”) even share a similar dynamic to Simon Pegg and Nick Frost — the noodly straight man and his boisterous, chubby pal, two sidekicks in search of a protagonist.
But there are far worse people from which to crib, and “The Wrong Mans” revels in the divide with which Wright has done so much in his films, between big genre tropes and prosaic normalcy, as it sends Sam, a recently dumped town planning and noise guidance advisor, down a rabbit hole of thriller cliches. Sam’s walking to work from his ramshackle new apartment while listening to Belle and Sebastian when he’s almost hit by a car. After the police take off, he finds a ringing cell phone and, answering it, is told the apparent abduction victim being held by the man on the other line will be in danger if he doesn’t cooperate. Sam’s reluctance to get involved in the unfolding madness is countered by the gleeful enthusiasm of the partner he reluctantly takes on, mailroom worker Phil, who’s thrilled that two guys like them get to participate, however ineptly, in car chases and random exchanges.
Baynton and Corden, who co-created “The Wrong Mans,” really aren’t the type you typically see bashing up bad guys and leaping from bridges onto moving vehicles, and while the series exploits that joke as much as possible — the pair participates in some elaborately awkward fights — it’s the way the banalities of their day-to-day routines force their way into the serious drama that’s what makes the series consistently entertaining.
Sam’s ex Lizzie (Sarah Solemani) is now his boss, and he’s dawdling, heartbroken, at a job he hates, hoping they’ll have a chance to patch things up. Phil is in his thirties and still lives with his doting mother, whose bright pink car he occasionally borrows, and tries to engage his uninterested office mates in weekend activity like go-karting. No matter how dire a situation involving the trading of hostages gets, Sam still has to sit in on an urgent planning meeting for the town’s redevelopment project, and some of the series’ best bits involve the timing of a burst of brainstorming or the use of a borrowed cell phone.
“The Wrong Mans” is six episodes long and directed by Jim Field Smith (“Butter,” “She’s Out of My League”), who gives the series some amusing cinematic blockbuster stylings — slow motion stunts and crane shots, explosions and wrecks. It may not have the sharpness of a Wright effort, but the show is deeply committed to its world-colliding premise, and trots out a host of serious actors, including Benedict Wong, Nick Moran, Dougray Scott and Stephen Campbell Moore, as underworld and agency figures utterly bemused by their interactions with these two bumblers. “You can’t put the genie back in the bottle,” Phil tells Sam in one of the many moments the pair realize they’re in over their head. “Of course you can — that’s where the genie lives!” Sam hisses back. “The Wrong Mans” doesn’t bottle its realm of double-crosses and shootouts back up, but it does bring it together with its heroes regular lives in an absolutely satisfying way.