Inside Man is a good pun and a bad story. The four-part black comedy drama is about Jefferson Grieff (Stanley Tucci), a criminologist on death row in Texas who, for reasons unexplained, is allowed to run a rudimentary detective agency while awaiting execution. That makes Grieff an inside man both in the prison sense, and in the criminal-solving-crimes sense. See? Good pun, and a decent premise for say, a CBS procedural in the NCIS/Ghost Whisperer pattern: a case a week to be solved by Tucci’s charismatic lead before his very literal deadline.
Cut-and-shut welded to a different story set in the UK about an Anglican vicar (David Tennant) making decisions so needlessly stupid that you wonder he has the capacity to put his cassock on the right way round, that premise (and pun) unfortunately collapse. Even Inside Man’s strong cast, pacy directing from Sherlock’s Paul McGuigan and the flashes of brilliance from writer Steven Moffat can’t save it from narrative failure on an essential level.
Put briefly: Inside Man is more thought experiment than story. Every ludicrous action taken by its characters is in service of the question: ‘what would make would a good man commit murder?’ Thus we have a good man, David Tennant’s vicar Harry Watling, wedged into a situation he keeps saying is unavoidable, but which could and should have been avoided at every turn. It’s like being asked to care about a mime artist trapped in a box – however good the acting, the lack of an actual box is glaring.
Without giving away major plot points, episode one introduces Tennant as a jokily irreverent reverend who crosses a line. Over the next three episodes, with increasing insistence on the impossibility of acting otherwise, Harry proceeds to cross several other lines until eventually, he ends up in a situation as genuinely irretrievable as the one he’s been protesting he’s in all along.
Presumably, the drama is aiming for Fargo-style escalation in which an ordinary man is led to extraordinary acts (see also: Neil Forsyth’s excellent Scottish drama Guilt) but there’s zero sense of inevitability here. Harry and his wife Mary (Lyndsey Marshal) aren’t trapped by fate or by circumstance, but by baffling choices they make in service of a hypothesis.
It is an excellent cast, and certainly good enough to distract from the central ‘but why-ness’ of the plot. Dracula’s Dolly Wells and Lydia West co-star as Harry’s son Ben’s maths tutor Janice Fife, and journalist Beth Davenport. Their opening scene set in a tube carriage is a sickeningly tense, strong start that proves disappointingly false advertising for what follows. It’s a gripping sequence that taps into a very now moment, and introduces Wells’ character as a thrillingly resourceful, strategic thinker. If only she’d taken that tube to a different series, Janice is the kind of character TV audiences could really enjoy.
Also very good is Louis Oliver (from Netflix’s Midnight Mass, and son of writer Steven Moffat and producer Sue Vertue) as Ben. He’s convincing at every point, from flippant and cocky in episode one to panicked and terrified by the finale. Add Tennant and Tucci, and it’s a strong, committed ensemble with a gift for delivering Moffat’s zippy, sardonic dialogue.
Despite Tennant’s charisma, it’s hard to feel much but frustration for the hapless vicar. The Stanley Tucci side of things is an easier buy. ‘Brilliant enigma solves cases using superior powers of deduction’ is welcome and familiar television (especially familiar from the co-creator of Sherlock). There’s a certain queasiness in Jefferson Grieff’s story’s glib and regular use of violence against women as a punchline, but as a black comedy featuring a serial killer, at least it’s contextual.
Even Grieff’s side of things though, paints itself into a corner when the ‘inside man’ needs an outside man for the crime-solving legwork. Or rather, he doesn’t need an outside man, the show needs one, in order for viewers to have something to look at other than Grieff smugly explaining answers he already knows.
Overall, this dark four-hour jaunt doesn’t pay off the time investment. Its central obsession – the bad things done by good people – is dramatically rich, but squandered. The result is smug, inessential and largely a waste of its clever dialogue and talented cast.
Inside Man is out now on Netflix in the US and other non-UK territories, and on BBC iPlayer in the UK.