There’s a certain kind of character everyone loves to hate: the supposedly average person who gets thrown into a terrible situation and suddenly becomes unrealistically good at everything he or she needs to do to save the day. Fanfiction writers call the female version “Mary Sue” and her male equivalent “Marty Sam” or “Gary Stu.” Of course, there are plenty of real-world instances of ordinary people doing extraordinary things in extraordinary circumstances, but most people tend to panic in an emergency. Mary Sues are annoying because they ignore that reality. (And having purple hair, wilver eyes, and a fake Japanese name doesn’t help, either.)
Occasionally, however, a writer will turn that trope on its head to great effect. And that’s exactly what actors/writers Mathew Baynton and James K. Corden have done in their action-comedy The Wrong Mans, available in the US on Hulu. Even the title is a twist on Hitchcock’s The Wrong Man, and the first season’s tagline pretty well sets the tone of the series: “Danger called. They happened to answer.”
At first blush, the show’s protagonists aren’t even heroes. Sam Pinkett (Baynton) works for Berkshire County Council, and when we first meet him, everything in his life is going wrong. His girlfriend, who’s now his boss, has broken up with him and asked him to move out. His new housemates have thrown a party and dragged him into it. He wakes up hung over; there’s nothing in the house for breakfast; and his bike’s been stolen. And it’s snowing.
Sam’s miserably trudging down the road when he witnesses a nasty one-car accident. And just as he’s finally free to resume his trek to the office, a phone abandoned at the accident scene starts to ring. Everyone else has just left, so Sam answers.
“Let me make this quite clear,” says an unidentified male voice. “If you are not here by 5:00, we will kill your wife.” And the caller hangs up.
Horrified, Sam stumbles through his work duties as he tries to figure out what to do about the mysterious threat. Unfortunately, once the kidnappers call back and warn Sam not to go to the police, the only person who will listen to him is Phil Bourne (Corden), a thirty-something mailroom clerk who still lives with his overbearing mother and is a legend in his own mind. After consulting with Phil, Sam decides to return the phone to the crash victim, hoping the man will be able to save his wife without their help.
But of course, the situation’s not nearly that simple. Sam and Phil quickly find themselves being pulled progressively deeper into a web of local and international intrigue—think film noir meets 24. Naturally, being in over their heads, they freak out, make foolish decisions, and yell at each other quite a bit. And when desperate times call for desperate moves like jumping onto a passing train, they don’t always execute those moves with the panache of a Jack Bauer. Plus, they still have to deal with mundane problems like work, Sam’s ex, and Phil’s mom.
Yet for all Sam’s cowardice and Phil’s cringe-worthy geekiness, they both want to do the right thing. Their blundering attempts to do so take them from the wrong place at the wrong time to the right place at the right time. And they do eventually become heroes for real.
Each half-hour episode contains more improbable plot twists and coincidences than you can shake a stick at, and some of the raunchier jokes go on too long. But unlike a story featuring an actual Mary Sue, the series never feels implausible. Sam and Phil truly seem like average blokes, and they react the way normal people would react in such situations. As “the wrong mans,” they’re really bad at all this… and somehow that makes them the right men after all.