In some inescapable ways, James Corden and “Mammals” are made for each other. As a six-episode series, the new Prime Video show is the perfect length for someone taking the offramp from the late night TV freeway, as Corden will do when he exits “The Late Late Show” sometime next year. From a performance standpoint, this Jez Butterworth-written half-hour dramedy gives Corden the chance to step outside the Stage-to-Screen Adaptation Industrial Complex and originate a role of his own.
On paper, even the premise seems perfect for someone looking to move on from an eight-and-a-half year stint playing virality-optimized affability. Here, Corden is Jamie, an acclaimed chef trying to juggle a cratering marriage, a soon-to-open restaurant, and an amateur investigation into the identity of the man who may have thrown a wrench in both. This is not a show built on pleasant, carefree vibes. It’s a sprinkling of charm and a dash of dark comedy mixed into a bowl of intentional misery, one that Corden isn’t stirring by himself.
Much like his “Late Late Show” tenure, “Mammals” doesn’t necessarily succeed or fail based on Corden’s contributions. In both cases, he has the most amount of screen time but never feels like the only person who could possibly do the job. Yet, if Corden was going to have a role that requires him to put on a cheeky persona and spend significant chunks of time doing what he assumed audiences wanted from him, playing an actual character on an Amazon show feels like a far better use of what he has to offer.
“Mammals” has its flaws. Corden’s performance isn’t one of them. In the scenes when he must make the case that Jamie’s capable of wooing someone with a kind of doofus magnetism, he pulls it off. When Jamie’s called on to weep for his fractured storybook marriage, Corden puts enough in those tears to make them believable. And if there wasn’t already proof of him being able to have a combative attitude in a legacy media profile, there’s a scene in “Mammals” where his character does just that. Corden maybe isn’t the slam-dunk choice to play six episodes of a man enduring the trials of a privileged Job, but you could certainly do far worse.
Since Butterworth structures this as the chronicles of a man wronged, Jamie is at the center of “Mammals.” Even if there are points along the way that chip away at Jamie’s sense of being the star of his own story, the rest of the show — a smattering of interconnected, inconsistent stories about the frustrations that come with monogamy — is less focused, which leaves Corden as the main thread. Jamie becomes this weird, solipsistic figure around which people try on costumes and share cute personal anecdotes, and even a surprise celebrity drops in. In a way, it’s not that dissimilar from a late-night show.
The main difference here is that Corden doesn’t have to try to be likable the whole time. Jamie shouts at his employees and awkwardly stalks his wife on a motorized scooter. Corden’s longest gig to date really only tested one side of the double-edged sword that is faux friendliness. He only drops the cuddly persona on “The Late Late Show” when called on to deliver somber introductions in the wake of a mass shooting (something that happened infuriatingly often enough during his tenure) or when stripped bare by his late-night contemporaries. In “Mammals,” Jamie’s toggling between charming and off-putting feels like a much more fruitful way of embracing the onscreen thorniness he was always capable of but rarely chose to embrace.
Part of that comes from the fact that “Mammals” gives Corden a chance to be genuinely unsettling. At one point, Jamie threatens another man with violence. At another, he absorbs soul-shattering information with an eerily blank expression. Watching Jamie stare in masochistic despair at a computer screen, Corden works those darker layers into someone who’s otherwise trying to put on a cheery-eyed face for the world. Apart from noting it exists, “Mammals” doesn’t do all that much with that contradiction. (Maybe that’s more of a Season 2 thread.) But at least it’s more than the vague approximation of “British Kyle Schwarber” that Corden’s locked himself into for so long.
Any time that “Mammals” does push Jamie off to the side, however momentarily, you get a glimpse of a completely different show. There’s Jamie’s wife Amandine (Melia Kreiling) asserting her own views on their marriage, even if Butterworth rarely gives her much room to be more than a means to an end. Jamie’s best friend Jeff (Colin Morgan) is in a less-glamorous career position as a professor in a niche biological field, while Jamie’s sister/Jeff’s wife Lue (an overqualified Sally Hawkins) is daydreaming herself into the world of a century ago. It’s not really Corden’s fault that Jamie isn’t exactly the most interesting choice out of those four possible protagonists. But it does accidentally make for a thought experiment of whether, going forward, Corden is better used as a versatile complement rather than the main ingredient. There’s no world where he slides right back into “The Wrong Mans” territory, but this new show at least charts an interesting path away from the terminally chummy aura he cultivated on CBS.
If “Mammals” exists as a James Corden showcase, that doesn’t mean it’s merely a vanity project. Maybe the greatest thing that “Mammals” does throughout its six episodes is let Corden’s character be the punchline instead of the guy holding all the cards. Whether that’s a conscious move for the actor himself or an inevitable outcome of moving on, it’s at least a step in the right direction.
“Mammals” is now available to stream on Prime Video.