As I watched the new Amazon Prime series Mammals, I was reminded of a disturbing – and perhaps even apocryphal – anecdote from Margaret Atwood. When the author of The Handmaid’s Tale asked a male friend why men fear women, she was told that men are afraid of women laughing at them. When she asked women what they feared in men, they told her they were afraid of being killed.
In Jez Butterworth’s surreal and hilarious miniseries about love and infidelity, James Corden – in an unfortunate flashback to his recent tabloid troubles with a New York brasserie – plays Jamie, an aspiring London chef about to open his dream restaurant. He and his wife Amandine (Melia Kreiling) are on Babymoon in Cornwall when a series of remarkable events occur almost simultaneously: the cottage next door is apparently inhabited by Tom Jones (the real one), a majestic whale breaks through the blue-black sea, and Amandine suffers a late miscarriage.
While the miscarriage is devastating enough to carry a show of its own, it mainly functions here as a plausible way for Amandine’s cellphone to get into Jamie’s hands without said hands getting dirty. He uses it to break the sad news to their families when a sext from Amandine’s secret lover shows up. Phones these days contain entire worlds, and given the circumstances, I doubt anyone would mind Jamie snooping around a bit more.
But it doesn’t stop there. Rather than confront Amandine, Jamie switches to full blown stalker mode after the couple return to London. He tracks Amandine to her errands, he threatens her lovers (yes, plural) and even recruits his brother-in-law Jeff – a melancholy academic played by Colin Morgan – to hack the password-protected video files. He describes his deteriorating mental state to a grief counselor as “anger,” “turmoil,” and “utter astonishment.”
Jeff advises him not to watch the videos for his own sake. But he doesn’t tell Jamie that as traumatic as Amandine’s betrayal is, what he’s doing now feels quite menacing. I wish he would. Instead, I watched all six episodes – each about 25 minutes long – half distracted, hoping that in the next scene someone – anyone! – would save Jamie from himself.
The story goes on
However, I was far less distracted than I initially feared by Corden himself, who brings humor to Jamie, even as the character darkens and his actions become vindictively mean. I laughed out loud as Jamie dissected a text message from Amandine’s lover that ended in ‘2’ instead of ‘to’ – ‘like he’s in such a hurry’. And after the series’ raucous opening sequence, in which Jamie and Amandine valiantly speed down country lanes to their vacation home, Corden effectively mutes the unrelenting friendliness that has made him a success on late-night television. And yet there were moments when Mammals almost insisted that I remember the talk show host in our midst. Am I really supposed to watch Jamie zip around London in a helmet on an electric scooter and not think it’s James Corden?
Melia Kreiling in Mammals (Luke Varley)
Unfortunately, Butterworth’s script loses some tension as the focus shifts to Lue, Jamie’s somber sister. Sally Hawkins is among the most adorable actors working today, but even she can’t infuse emotional resonance with a wacky storyline in which Lue introduces herself as Coco Chanel’s assistant – a mechanism to cope with her unclear boredom.
More successful are the more straight-forward surreal moments of Mammals, an oxymoron that will be clear to anyone who watches to the twisting end. And if you start the series, you probably will. If only to learn what, if anything, Tom Jones had to do with it.