What happens when ordinary people fall down the rabbit hole of extraordinary criminal activity? This is a premise that has captivated prestige television in recent years, from Sally Wainwright’s miraculous Happy Valley to Noah Hawley’s pitch-black re-imagination of Fargo. Normal people – neither good nor bad – trapped in a cycle of bad decisions. And this is the territory that Steven Moffatt – ex of the parishes of Doctor Who and Sherlock – is treading with his new four-part BBC thriller, Inside Man.
The man on the inside is Stanley Tucci’s Jefferson Grieff, a former professor of criminology now on death row for murdering his wife. He’s imprisoned somewhere deep in the arid American South, where he takes a philosophical stance on his impending death. When asked whether he wants to be executed, he replies with a shrug, “I don’t want to be executed, and my wife didn’t want to be murdered”. But when he’s not wisecracking about capital punishment, he takes on freelance cases of “moral worth” in his capacity as “the death row detective”. It’s all very Sherlock Holmes, albeit in a mind prison rather than palace, and he even has his own Watson – Dillon (Atkins Estimond), a hulking, chipper serial killer with a photographic memory.
Stanley Tucci might be married to Emily Blunt’s sister, and regularly spotted at the bougie bakeries of west London, but that doesn’t sound very BBC as a set-up. The British end, however, is kept up, both by Moffatt’s fellow Who alumnus, David Tennant, who plays vicar Harry, and Dolly Wells’ maths tutor, Janice. A misunderstanding over a rogue USB drive entangles their lives (and fates), and an investigative reporter, Beth (It’s a Sin’s Lydia West, who struggles to bring the character to life), ropes Grieff into their case. And that’s about as specific as I can be without breaching the Beeb’s spoiler embargos.
Whether he’s a fashion designer, controller of an airport, or an Italian chef, Tucci always plays the same character. As, to some extent, does Tennant. Bad characters or good characters, both actors rely on their superfluity of natural charisma. “God loves atheists,” says Tennant’s charming vicar, prior to faeces meeting fan. “Loves jumping out at them: boo!” As things get wronger and wronger, the tone remains jaunty. Moffatt’s work, including 2020’s Dracula, always has the timbre of young adult fiction, just bouncy enough to sand off the rough edges (and the rough edges here include subjects like sexual assault, paedophilia and suicide). Even within that gloom, Inside Man remains impeccably watchable.
But Moffatt is, fundamentally, a purveyor of mediocre fare, and Inside Man is no exception. Where both Happy Valley and Fargo depicted a situation spiralling out of control with horrifying sympathy, Inside Man’s central scenario is unsatisfyingly confected. “Everyone’s a murderer,” comes Grieff’s judgment. “All it takes is a good reason and a bad day.” And while that’s a neat idea, it doesn’t explain away lying when there’s no reason not to tell the truth. Ordinary people making bad decisions might make for good TV, but stupid people making implausible decisions? Less so.
With likeable performances and quippy characters (Wells’ unfortunate teacher remains smart-talking despite bleak circumstances, telling her imprisoner, “I think in the end – and with regret I’m sure – you’re going to kill me”), Inside Man is a weeknight crowd pleaser. Just don’t expect the moral depth, or proficient plotting, of some of its rivals in the emergent “men making mistake after mistake” genre.