Movies

‘Mammals’ Is James Corden’s Bitter Look at Marriage: TV Review

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The unknowability of one’s romantic partner is well-trod ground for art, and for good reason. The contradiction between the idea that love ought to be able to break through anything and the frequent reality of the fundamental mystery of someone else’s mind is rich, juicy, and provocative. Or it can be — later this month, for instance, FX is betting on its adaptation of Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s novel “Fleishman Is in Trouble,” which assays the breakdown of a marriage from no fewer than three perspectives. Before that, Amazon Prime Video debuts “Mammals,” which aims for provocation, but will likely bring many viewers closer to befuddlement.

Here, talk-show host James Corden returns to his roots as an actor to play Jamie, a short-tempered chef who reserves the best of himself for his wife Amandine (Melia Kreiling). A family tragedy while the two are on holiday together ends up driving a wedge between them, as Jamie uncovers a series of infidelities that calls the nature of their relationship into question. In parallel, Jamie’s sister Lue (Sally Hawkins) begins to wonder about her own marriage to Jeff (Colin Morgan).

This dual story has a sort of rigid, inflexible sameness — maybe all unhappy relationships are unhappy in the same way, at least in writer Jez Butterworth’s vision of things. (Butterworth is an exceptional playwright who seems, this time, to have run up against a brick wall.) In place of narrative interest, the series introduces various leitmotifs, including a recurrent series of references to the animal kingdom. The point, or a point, seems to be that we’re all just mammals after all — that the instinctual can override what one knows to be appropriate or ethical or right. But this is, for six episodes’ worth of television, a bit thin.

And the characters we meet don’t make the journey more pleasurable. Hawkins, a truly gifted performer, has been given much more to do previously in her career. And when we see, in flashback, the origin of Jamie and Amandine’s coupling, it makes a crystalline sort of narrative sense: It hasn’t evolved meaningfully since then. Which means that Amandine is callous and unkind and Jamie is snappish and blunt to a fault. While there’s certainly an extratextual richness, given the recent scandal over his purported unkindness to restaurant workers, to Corden’s chef character biting a reporter’s head off then apologetically telling them to write that he’s “rude… moody…,” the character’s rudeness and moodiness doesn’t serve the story, or illuminate any aspect of it, save for one. The mystery of why Amandine seeks to spend as little time as possible with her husband is, as time goes by, barely a mystery at all.

“Mammals” premieres Friday, November 11 on Amazon Prime Video.

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