‘Mammals’ Review: Marriage Is Under a Microscope In James Corden’s New Lackluster Dramedy

The human preoccupation with the complexities of marriage will probably never fade. In fact, our preoccupation with the complexities of romantic entanglements, in general, will probably always be at the forefront of the emotional questions we ask ourselves. But marriage, being a sort of binding contract, fascinates us on a different level. The idea of belonging to someone else completely, and more still, trusting them implicitly as you give yourself over to them, is a beautiful one, and it is something that keeps people entering the arrangement of marriage every single day—even though we know, it takes very little to bring a house of love cards down. The new Prime Video dramedy “Mammals” puts a microscope on marriage and forces its audience to come to terms with that house of cards crashing on what appears to be a pretty perfect relationship. But despite its effective writing and performances, the show can’t get out of its own way and rise above, bringing nothing new to the conversation, thus becoming ultimately forgettable. 

READ MORE: ‘Mammals’ Trailer: James Corden & Sally Hawkins Unpack The Complexities Of Marriage & Fidelity

“Mammals” follows the story of Jamie (James Corden), a chef on the verge of opening his first restaurant, when he discovers a bombshell secret about his pregnant wife, Amandine (Melia Kreiling). With the help of his brother-in-law and best friend Jeff (Colin Morgan), he sets on a path to uncover as much as he can about what she’s been up to behind his back — and it unravels in a way even he didn’t expect. 

The strength of this six-episode story, one that zeroes in on the overplayed topic of complicated marriages, lies in its writing. “Jerusalem” playwright Jez Butterworth penned the entire season, and the strength of that choice shows; having him behind the entire story arc brings a cohesion to the series that makes it shine despite the fact that we’re treading down a familiar road. Butterworth has proven throughout his stage career that he has a firm handle on dialogue, and he does well in this project in using that skill to shape his characters. His dialogue is unrefined and fun to listen to, and his conversations flow with a worldly ease. You don’t mind listening to these characters get into it about their relationships because they sound like you or I would if we were at the bar with friends lamenting about life. Further still, Butterworth’s characters are equally as true to life in their impulses and their choices, particularly as they pertain to the people those characters love. Human beings are inherently flawed and full of contradictions; the world Butterworth creates for this story through his characters doesn’t let any of them off the hook for being either of those things. 

Yet, perhaps the major flaw of Butterworth’s script and characters is how he handles Lue, played by “The Shape of Water” star Sally Hawkins. The character is both Jamie’s brother and Jeff’s wife, and her marriage is, though not entirely falling apart, far less than perfect. Her connection with Jeff, and at times lack thereof, is a B-plot for sure, but Butterworth decides to completely immerse us in Lue’s fantasies in a way that flesh out this side story, but not necessarily for the better when it comes to the full picture. The audience is taken down the rabbit hole into Lue’s imagination, where she’s risen to high ranks as Coco Chanel’s creative partner despite being embroiled in an affair with her fiancè. While it’s some of the most innovative and creative ways this show gets conceptually, it takes the audience out of the main narrative literally and figuratively. These scenes were the ones you may find yourself zoning out on or paying the least amount of attention to. While the concept of delving into this part of an unhappy woman’s psyche is interesting, it didn’t exactly hold water in practice. 

Similarly to its script and story, the series also benefits from having one director for the entire season. “Physical” director Stephanie Laing works together with Butterworth to create a six-part odyssey that feels consonant. At 30 minutes an episode, the series wraps up at about three hours, which could pass for a lengthy film—and because of the way Laing’s seamless and stylistic directing compliments Butterworth’s scripts, it definitely would definitely play cohesively as one. Laing’s touch gives the series an almost magical realism edge, and there’s something whimsical about how she plays with her subjects and how she frames them in shots. Allowing a creative team member to have their stamp on the entirety of a television project really helps to acclimate your audience to the world you’re creating, and Laing’s direction is an asset to the tone and texture of the series. 

There are also plenty of strong performances in “Mammals,” but none of them are ultimately anything to write home about because of the container they exist in. Corden gets to bite off a bit more than his usual bombastic comedy fare, and he is good at it. Kreiling is confounding and compelling as Armandine, a fiery and sexy French woman who isn’t afraid to secure the things she wants. Morgan—whom some views will be very happy to see ten years after his stint on the BBC series “Merlin” came to a close—is a refreshing addition to the group, bringing unaffected sarcasm and natural wit to a role that is essential to the main character’s journey. Hawkins does an excellent job as the dissatisfied yet contemplative wife content to come to life within her own fantasies, even though those fantasy scenes aren’t exactly the show’s strongest points. These four performers are clearly skilled at crafting believable and compelling characters no matter what the script looks like, and they did just that in “Mammals.”

Ultimately, creator James Richardson’s dramedy sinks because it is not a compelling enough sum of all its parts. While the writing is strong, it doesn’t make up for how tired shows and movies about complicated marriages are. We’ve done the topic to death, explored it at great lengths, and gone down just about every possible road it has to offer us. The performances in the series are also strong, but in a way, the actors are doing the best with what they have. There isn’t much behind those performances because of the lack of anything truly riveting keeping us engaged. Butterworth’s script is natural and vibrant in the way it tackles its subjects, but everything leads us back to the boredom in the very thesis “Mammals” is trying to prove: that marriage stories are still interesting. [C]