Mammals: Jez Butterworth and James Corden join forces in this oddly unreal comedy

Though it may be tonally wayward, this streaming series is largely an easy, attractive diversion, sharpened by the ruder impulses of Butterworth’s writing and Corden’s prickly performance.

10 November 2022

By Guy Lodge

James Corden as Jamie in Mammals (2022)
Sight and Sound
  • This review is based on the first three episodes of the series.

Nothing feels exactly real at the outset of Mammals, a six-part relationship comedy from playwright Jez Butterworth, and that appears to be more or less by design. Wealthy married couple Jamie (James Corden) and Amandine (Melia Kreiling) are introduced speeding a gleaming sports car along a winding coastal road, en route to an idyllic seafront cottage that seems both decorated and lit by Instagram. Mattias Nyburg’s camera goes heavy on the lens flares and golden-hour vistas; from the terrace, Jamie can spy both whales splashing about in the ocean and Tom Jones (the Tom Jones, in a peculiar cameo, as Mammals flashes its Amazon-financed pulling power early on) sunning himself in the garden next door. Then pregnant Amandine begins to bleed in the shower, and reality enters the frame.

Broadly written by Butterworth, and directed by sitcom pro Stephanie Laing (Veep, 2012-19; Physical, 2021-) with peppy brightness, Mammals continues, over its brisk half-hour episodes, to swerve in and out of realism and high-key absurdity – not always in ways that feel entirely under Laing’s control. Amandine’s miscarriage briefly signals a marital grief drama, but instead goes on to propel a livelier, more eccentric examination of fidelity, ennui and thwarted connections between long-term couples – one of those series that might have said something about The Way We Live Today if the people in it genuinely resembled anyone you might know.

As a vehicle for Corden’s return to committed acting – after years of chat-show hosting, Carpool Karaoke and shticky musical roles in the likes of Cats (2019) and The Prom (2020) – Mammals is cannily tailored to a performer who has transitioned, perhaps irretrievably, into the realm of full-time personality, and a polarising one at that. Sensibly enough, his Jamie isn’t intended to be an everyman, nor especially likeable. A self-regarding, Michelin star-chasing London chef, he doesn’t seem to love his model-beautiful French wife quite as much as he treasures her. Like his Mayfair mews house or the hot tub he plunges into at their aforementioned holiday home, she’s a reward for the effort he’s put into his life – one you might call self-made if it weren’t so nakedly in the image of others.

All this makes him an eminently resistible protagonist to follow around for the length of a series, though Corden’s fine performance, alternately bluff and prickly, isn’t especially at pains to win us round. Viewer sympathies may vary when, with Amandine still in hospital, he discovers (via an errant text message intended for other eyes, the modern screenwriter’s favourite melodramatic device) that she’s having an affair. The betrayal gets more complicated from there, though it’s hard to hold any of it against her, not least because Butterworth’s script – at least, for the three episodes made available for review – keeps Amandine a closed book, assuming Jamie’s perspective as he plays amateur cuckolded detective in pursuit of his unseen rival.

His assistant in this bumbling investigation is his brother-in-law Jeff (Colin Morgan), an academic in a marital slump of his own with Jamie’s fey, perennially distracted sister Lue (Sally Hawkins) – though as the narrative organises itself around these two faulty relationships, it’s not clear what, beyond familial connection, they really have to do with each other. Strong on one-liners and comic, predominantly masculine angst, Butterworth’s writing is sketchier when it comes to interpersonal detail and domestic texture: there’s only a superficial sense here of how these four people live, love and communicate on a daily basis. That both couples have children, moreover, is a fact that Mammals is content to set aside for whole episodes at a time, lest the rituals of family life infringe on its philosophy of coupledom.

Hawkins draws the shortest draw of the ensemble: her rather wan character is saddled with a daffy subplot – a sort of Coco Chanel-inspired fantasy life – that feels like an offcut from another project altogether, meshing neither tonally nor thematically with the rest of Mammals’ salty urban soap opera. When it sticks on course, however, this is an easy, attractive diversion, given some savoury lift by the ruder, rougher impulses of Butterworth’s writing and Corden’s compellingly abrasive presence. Mammals is best when it pushes past its jaunty banter and inordinately glossy visuals, and actually permits people to hurt each other – occasionally even persuading us that these strangely remote, removed lovers, who live in some well-dressed semblance of the modern world, actually bleed when cut.

► Mammals is available to stream on Amazon Prime Video from 11 November.

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