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In Prime Video's Mammals, James Corden Adds Real Feeling to a Surreal Story

Jez Butterworth's startling new series finds poetry in a broken marriage.
  • James Corden and Melia Kreiling in Mammals (Photo: Luke Varley/Amazon Studios)
    James Corden and Melia Kreiling in Mammals (Photo: Luke Varley/Amazon Studios)

    Try to watch the first season of Mammals in one sitting. The six episodes only total two and half hours, which isn't so long, and total immersion makes it easier to savor the symbols and allusions and bits of magic that skitter around the show. The story — the literal one — is plenty interesting on its own, but it’s those dreamlike touches that make the series such a startling pleasure. The more concentrated their impact, the better.

    Jez Butterworth, who created the show, mastered this type of writing in the theater. His plays Jerusalem (which gave Mark Rylance one of his all-time greatest roles) and The Ferryman (which won the Tony for Best Play) hover just above reality, so that both language and action get at emotional truths without quite following the rules of the real world. In Mammals, which premieres November 11 on Prime Video, he adapts that style for the screen. It’s there in the very first scene, when rising chef Jamie (James Corden) and his wife Amandine (Melia Kreiling) are on vacation. They’ve just checked into their rental cottage when Amandine goes into labor, and the only person Jamie can find to help is pop superstar Tom Jones, who happens to be staying next door. A few episodes later, we see a wall of Tom Jones photos, but nobody mentions it. The images are simply there, suggesting a cosmic connection.

    For Jamie and Amandine, the magic emerges when they're at their best. On an early date, a Scrabble game reveals a secret message about their destiny. Over and over, their emotional bond makes whales appear in unlikely places. That’s a stark contrast to the rest of their scenes together, when their marriage is falling apart. While Amandine is giving birth, for instance, Jamie has her cell phone, and he discovers she’s been having an affair. That leads him down a desperate, jealous path that reveals one unpleasant surprise after another. It's ugly, and it's real. 

    Alongside this story — and increasingly tangled in it — is the relationship between Jamie’s sister Lue (Sally Hawkins) and her husband Jeff (Colin Wilson), a scientist and Jamie’s best friend. Unlike Jamie and Amandine, Lue and Jeff’s world is the most dreamlike when they’re drifting apart. When they separately encounter the same majestic stag in the woods near their home, their responses have a tragic intensity, as though the animal somehow is their troubled marriage. And when Lue reads about the life of Coco Chanel, she slips into the past, roaming the Paris streets where the designer made her name. Is she imagining this escape from her life, or is she really visitng Coco's atelier? 

    That ambiguity can be uncomfortable, since so much television trains us to accept what we’re seeing as a fact. Even shows about vampires or elves present their mythical creatures as solid, actual beings, whereas Mammals implies that everyday people are allegorical. But because the story is so well structured, those flourishes are welcome enhancements. They add an extra layer of feeling to the whole affair, reminding us that even when it’s actually happening love can be surreal.

    The entire first season of Mammals premieres November 11 on Prime Video.

    Mark Blankenship has been writing about arts and culture for twenty years, with bylines in The New York Times, Variety, Vulture, Fortune, and many others. You can hear him on the pop music podcast Mark and Sarah Talk About Songs.

    TOPICS: Mammals, Amazon Prime Video, Colin Wilson, James Corden, Jez Butterworth, Melia Kreiling, Sally Hawkins