From the outset, Inside Man is explicit about its commitment to comedy — Stanley Tucci’s character is even named Jefferson Grieff, a cheeky play on words for a convicted murderer awaiting execution. And while the BBC-Netflix series is by no means the first crime drama to employ dark humor, it’s cheapened by its insistence on undercutting its subject matter with gags.
Created by Steven Moffat (Doctor Who, Sherlock), Inside Man tells two intertwined morality tales. In an American prison sits Grieff, a former criminologist who has been sentenced to death for the murder of his wife. He’s the first to admit he’s “an evil piece of sh*t,” yet he seeks atonement by solving cases he deems of “moral worth” to the world. “I have a little ability, almost no resources, and very limited time,” he says, in a rare moment of gravity. “Within that framework, I would like to do whatever good I can.”
Across the Atlantic, local vicar Harry Watling (David Tennant) finds himself trapped in a prison of his own making. When he has a terrible misunderstanding with his son’s math tutor Janice (Dolly Wells), he takes matters into his own hands, convinced it’s the only way to protect his family.
Grieff’s and Harry’s worlds collide via a journalist, Beth Davenport (Lydia West), who suspects Janice is in trouble and turns to Grieff for help. But her rescue mission is immediately derailed by the sardonic murderer and his quirky sidekick Dillon (Atkins Estimond), a serial killer with a photographic memory. Grieff and Dillon spend the first few minutes of their meeting interrogating whether the women are actually friends or just “serial acquaintances,” with Dillon going so far as to parrot Beth’s last text to Janice in an exaggerated British accent. For these two, trivial details are more important than any real threat to Janice: In the same conversation, Dillon is affronted that Grieff would suggest he “made a magazine rack out of a librarian’s rib cage,” when in reality, “it was a drying rack.”
When Grieff swifty reprimands him for this comment, their interaction recalls the reluctant mentor-eager mentee relationships that dominate buddy comedies and police procedurals. But while irreverent banter works in something like The Wire, which uses comedy as a subtle way of shading its characters, Moffat wields it like a cudgel. The derisive tone of Dillon’s aside — and the exasperated response it requires from Grieff — takes viewers out of the scene and shifts focus away from the case at hand. Turning what should be a serious moment into a mockery also undercuts the stakes of this story. If Dillon and Grieff aren’t going to take Beth’s plea for help seriously, then why should we?
This general sense of irreverence carries over into other aspects of Grieff’s story, particularly his crime-solving enterprise. The first two episodes employ a case-of-the-week structure, with the smug prisoner holding court as clients lay out their personal tragedies. In the first episode, he’s approached about a case involving mysterious payments being made to a senator accused of raping two women while in college. Grieff deems the senator morally unworthy and declines to take the case, even though he’s clearly solved the riddle of the payments. The answer involves how closely the word “therapist” resembles “the rapist,” which is presented as a whimsical twist. “It does have its amusing side, doesn’t it?” asks Grieff, as he and Dillon dissolve into giggles over their discovery. Moffat seems aware of the real-world importance of the storyline — the senator is presented as a stand-in for Brett Kavanaugh — so it’s odd that the mystery is resolved with a joke.
These moments are designed to create a certain allure around Grieff, and they play to Tucci’s strengths as an actor who’s made his career charming audiences. But there’s a fine line between humanizing Grieff and glorifying him, and Inside Man comes down on the morally suspect side. Tucci’s character is presented as all-knowing and self-righteous, as if he alone understands the depths of human depravity, and he’s deigning to let us in on his secret.
The levity in Tucci’s storyline stands in stark contrast to the soberness of Tennant’s, which is structured as a psychological thriller centered around Janice, who finds herself locked in a cellar by the end of Episode 1. Wells delivers a quietly powerful performance as a woman fighting for survival, but she’s trapped in a melodramatic story that becomes more lurid with every passing episode. However, if you can get past a premise that requires a complete suspension of disbelief, then the timeline effectively raises questions about what drives people to brutality, and Harry’s journey down a rabbit hole of violence and self-destruction serves as a perfect illustration of Grieff’s belief that “everyone’s a murderer; you just have to find the right person.”
Though they remain physically separated, Grieff’s and Harry’s stories come together in the final minutes of the season. For the first time, Grieff trades his sardonic wit for a serious morality lesson, resulting in a weighty scene that hints at the promise of what could have been. And yet this resolution hardly feels earned after four episodes of misguided buddy comedy have chipped away at the drama’s own moral position.
Still, there’s hope. A mid-credits scene sets up a new mystery for Grieff to solve, and with his execution looming, he’s got mere weeks to puzzle it out. If Moffat ditches the irreverent humor and prison pal shenanigans, then he may be able to give that story the substance it deserves.
Inside Man premieres October 31 on Netflix.
Claire Spellberg Lustig is the Senior Editor at Primetimer and a scholar of The View. Follow her on Twitter at @c_spellberg.