Mammals (Amazon Prime) is a rare foray into television by wunderkind playwright Jez Butterworth, starring his friend James Corden. If that conjunction gives you mental whiplash, at least it will be good preparation for watching the thing.
Corden plays Jamie Buckingham, a devoted husband to Amandine (Melia Kreiling), who is expecting their first child. We meet them holidaying next to Sir Tom Jones (playing himself) and watching in awe as a whale surfaces majestically in front of them. Everything, you see, is going to be metaphor, even if it is not yet and may never be entirely clear for what.
Corden is shoutily one-note from the off and things do not improve much thereafter, though he is given more to work with. Amandine miscarries and, using her phone to call all those who need to be given the awful news, Jamie discovers she has been having an affair with someone called Paul. The fundamentally unbelievable pairing of Jamie, imbued as he is with Corden’s ineradicable loutish manbaby quality, and his luminously beautiful, gracious and intelligent wife makes this less of an upset to the viewer than Butterworth was perhaps hoping.
There is a twist at the end of the first episode that you may or may not see coming, but which you will hugely enjoy either way, and which heralds the relentless implosion of the rest of Jamie’s life over the remaining five short instalments.
Bolted on to the main narrative is that of his – at first unfathomably – unhappy and distracted sister Lue (Sally Hawkins), who takes refuge from life in daydreams about being Coco Chanel’s assistant, enjoying all the freedom and glamour of high fashion society in 1920s Paris. These, along with Tom Jones and various cetacean interludes, provide a surrealist element to the otherwise straightforward relationship drama that is obviously part of a reach for profundity that never quite gets there.
Mammals is concerned with fidelity – how we define it, why we place so much importance on it and what happens when a party fails in it. The problem is that it barely raises these questions, let alone interrogates them. Amandine’s motivations – much like Amandine herself, who is less character than cipher – remain opaque until the very end (with another twist that I think it is more likely you will have seen coming). The infidelities that play out are the stuff of a thousand dramas, films and novels we have seen before. And the script rarely shows any sign of having flowed from the pen of one of the finest writers of his generation. “We’re still a family, aren’t we?” asks Amandine’s young daughter after the miscarriage, which is an emetic rather than heartbreaking line, and the scene in which Amandine’s mother hands over a family heirloom violin at the memorial service verges on risible. Its only purpose, it becomes clear, is to give Jamie something significant to smash in episode two when further revelations have made his feelings need loutish manbaby expression.
It clearly has ambitions, philosophically and formally, but nothing works well enough for it to succeed on its own terms. But if you ignore the clever-clever bits, the basic story holds the interest well enough over its half-hour stints. Hawkins, Kreiling and Colin Morgan (as Hawkins’ neuroscientist husband Jeff, whose university lecture is used to flag the fact that only 3-5% of mammals have any concept of sexual fidelity) do sterling work. But while Corden is a better actor than is often remembered, here he only engenders the feeling that the project overall represents a wasted opportunity.