Alfred Hitchcock didn’t invent suspense, but the way we experience it owes incalculably much to his understanding of how it works on film, to his liking for heroes drafted against their will, and to his belief that plot is just a means to an end. Explanations, though appreciated, are beside the point -- which is some darker or lighter version of fun, basically, mixing comedy and drama to taste.
“The Wrong Mans,” a darkly rollicking new British-made series co-produced by the BBC and Hulu, where it begins streaming Monday, is in this august popular tradition. (It even borrows a title from Hitchcock, which it vandalizes -- ungrammaticizes -- with a final “s.”) It cleaves mostly to comedy -- its co-stars and co-writers James Corden and Mathew Baynton worked together in “Gavin & Stacey,” which Corden also co-created -- yet is, at the same time, authentically nerve-racking. For all its farce and slapstick, there’s a melancholy cast to much of it, a rueful wistfulness somehow accentuated by the suburban setting into which local corruption and international intrigue intrude.
The stars play acquainted quasi-co-workers -- Baynton a “town planning and noise guidance adviser” for Berkshire County Council, and Corden a “31-year-old mail distribution assistant” still living with his mother -- whom fate makes allies. The former is skinny and insecure and counterproductively realistic, except where ex-girlfriend Sarah Solemani is concerned (in which respect he’s counterproductively unrealistic); the latter is round, overly confident and prone to fantasy. Both are lonely, in a rut, and in need of adventure, though perhaps not as dangerous adventure as finds them early in the first of six episodes, after Baynton comes upon a ringing cellphone, whose unidentified caller says, “If you’re not here by 5 o’clock, we’ll kill your wife,” and hangs up.
The opening minutes (beautifully filmed and, unlike what follows the credits, letterboxed for cinematic effect) are schooled in old-screen verities, setting mood, establishing character and catalyzing the action without rubbing your face in it. A worse-for-wear Baynton, in his worse-for-wear apartment, flashes back to a party there the night before, involving drunken bad dancing and increasingly teary cellphone calls to the above-mentioned ex-girlfriend. His bicycle having been stolen but for one chained wheel, he sets off walking to work in the snow. Belle and Sebastian’s “Get Me Away From Here I’m Dying” playing on the soundtrack and in his ear buds, he is overtaken by a car, which swerves, fishtails and flips; he calls for an ambulance and passes out. (We are not yet four minutes in.) Presently, after the car and its driver have been carted away, he will discover that cellphone.
“This is our moment,” says Corden, in whom Baynton has confided, and who needs a friend and a purpose. “We’ve been chosen.”
“If this phone had rung three seconds later,” replies Baynton, who is not so sure. “I wouldn’t even have heard it.”
“Someone out there needs us. A woman. A beautiful woman,” he supposes.
The plot Corden and Baynton have constructed is a many-layered onion, a maze of blind alleys, a game of chutes and ladders, but mostly chutes. The prospect before them continually, and sometimes confusingly, shifts; they are not only wrong men in the sense of mistaken identity, but in the sense of being mistaken.
There are many things in it familiar to the genre (and also to office comedies), but the borrowings fit the tone of the story, in which ordinary life suddenly becomes like something out of a movie. The goings-on feel fresh in the way that kids at play make spy or space stories their own, even as they repeat what TV and the movies have taught them. This is just that with a budget, some deeper experience and the help of Jennifer Saunders, Rebecca Front, Dougray Scott and David Harewood, among interesting others.