Russian gangsters, car chases, government conspiracies — these aren't things you often see in comedy. At least not on TV.
Action-comedy films have been around forever, but no one has attempted to blend the genres within a half-hour comedy slot. Until now. On Monday, Hulu debuts The Wrong Mans, an ambitious comedy-thriller from Gavin & Stacey's James Corden and Mathew Baynton co-produced with the BBC. The duo star as Phil (Corden) and Sam (Baynton), two below-average Joes who unwittingly get sucked into a high-stakes crime caper after answering a cell phone found on the road.
"We came up with the idea about four years ago. Everything that was on in terms of comedy was just such a world apart from what we were seeing in drama, in terms of the visual ambition and plotting," Baynton tells TVGuide.com. "We were watching shows like 24 and Lost, those kind of big dramas. And really the show came out of the conversation where we were saying, why doesn't anyone do comedy that way? Why don't people attempt comedy that has big epic narrative?"
"Four years later, we now know why," producer and director Jim Field Smith interjects.
Smith and Baynton admit there were major challenges in trying to fit the large-scale narrative of an hour-long drama into a thirty-minute comedy, but somehow The Wrong Mans strikes the perfect balance. "I think there can be a temptation to think that the drama and comedy are separate things, so you kind of try to find room for drama moments and then for comedy moments, all within half an hour," Baynton explains. "And the key ultimately was to make sure the two things were always happening at the same time. Every joke is within a story beat."
To pull this off, Baynton and Corden made sure to inject a relatable realism to the more dramatic elements. In Episode 2, Sam and Phil keep a hostage in their office building, but he show doesn't shy away from the less cinematic elements of what a hostage situation actually entails. The result: a particularly memorable scene in which Sam is caught by his boss — and former girlfriend — Lizzie (Sarah Solemani) holding a bag of the hostage's feces on his way to dispose of it.
"I think it's a good example of where I think the show really flies, when you're putting the mundane up against something huge," Smith says. "So you put Sam at work. He's got all these deadlines, he's letting Lizzie down ... and he's just trying to have a conversation with Lizzie about whether he's put the chairs out. But we know — and Sam and Phil know — there's a hostage tied up five meters away on the other side of a glass wall."
"Yes it's a comic conceit that he's got a bag of sh-- behind his back, but actually what's funny about it is the dramatic irony [of] this huge spiraling criminal plot," Smith continues.
Baynton says they were initially hesitant to include the scene out of fear of simply doing a poop joke, but thankfully, there's a realism to the humor that elevates it beyond a common gag. "We tried to make sure the comedy came out of the situation the characters were forced into rather than that they were funny, silly guys that make funny, silly decisions," he says. "So, when they get the hostage, for example, we were kind of hoping... you put yourself in their shoes and question what you'd do if you couldn't really come up with another conclusion,"
While there is a freshness to the humor in The Wrong Mans — and one that's much needed amid the current nostalgia worship of TV comedy — it's the way the Office-esque banality is juxtaposed with extraordinarily ambitious aesthetics that raises the entire genre-blended concoction to a new level. Right off the bat, The Wrong Mans sets itself apart from other comedies with a jaw-dropping car crash that serves as the catalyst for Sam's entire adventure.
"[It's] really important how shocking and stunning it is and that it all happens in the shot," Baynton says. "And I think the reason that's so important is because it happens so early on and that once you see that ... you know that there's the potential there to see those big dramatic moments. It keeps that possibility alive, because then you're playing with suspense, you're playing with the audience expectation."
The promise of dramatic visuals is repeatedly paid off throughout the series — and is often done without the use of green screen or stuntmen. Baynton and Corden perform the majority of the stunts themselves, with only the precision driving left to the professionals. And since neither man is exactly James Bond material, the action sequences remain grounded. "We weren't expecting them to be superheroes," Smith says. "We wanted them to be like real people. We wanted them to be out of breath. I didn't want them to look good at fighting. ... It's funnier to see Sam fighting a trained assassin than it is for him to suddenly have all of these Jason Bourne-esque skills."
As each episode goes on, The Wrong Mans gets larger and larger in scale. Starting with a simple phone call, Sam and Phil's adventures continue to escalate at an astonishing pace until they're embroiled within a full-blown international conspiracy. There are times when the series' many twists can be hard to keep track of, but the show's whip-fast pacing is also one of its greatest assets. Because there's no dead space within the narrative, The Wrong Mans is able to undergo a full Breaking Bad-esque, Mr. Chips-to-Scarface transformation in just six episodes.
"It's a pretty epic ending for what starts out as a fairly gentle show, which is a very deliberate choice we made," Baynton says. "The feeling was as long as it happens layer by layer, you can end up as big as you can possibly dream. If you jumped to where it gets to in Episode 6 from Episode 1 it would be absurd. But the fun of it is getting there one by one... As it goes along you're sort of tricked into feeling it's all quite logical."
The Wrong Mans' first two episodes are available on Hulu starting Monday, with weekly episodes being released thereafter. All six episodes will be released Monday on Hulu Plus.
Watch the entire first episode below.