I decided to check on Netflix’s Inside Man — a coproduction with the BBC — for the same reason most people will: David Tennant and Stanley Tucci. Finding out that Tennant plays an English vicar and Tucci a death-row inmate, however, nearly put me off, because I assumed it would be one of those dreary, heavy British dramas.
Inside Man — developed by Steven Moffat — is heavy, but it is decidedly not dreary. Tucci’s character, Jefferson Grieff, is a prison inmate, but he’s also a former criminology professor, so here he’s basically death-row Sherlock Holmes, and his Watson is Dillon Kempton, a serial killer on death row who has a photographic memory, and acts as Grieff’s assistant.
Grieff murdered and decapitated his wife for reasons that are unclear, but all the same, in the weeks ahead of his execution, he only takes on cases from morally upstanding people. He solves cases on the outside from inside of prison — and he does so brilliantly — and wants to do some good with the last few weeks he has left. He’s scared of his execution, but he isn’t appealing his sentence, either. “I don’t want to die,” he reasons, “but neither did my wife.” We don’t understand why he murdered his wife, but we’re left to believe that his reasons weren’t altogether malicious.
Meanwhile, Tennant plays Harry Watling, a clever vicar with a randy sense of humor who is not above making fun of his own teenage son for watching porn. He, his wife Mary (Lyndsey Marshal), and his son Ben (Moffat’s real-life son, Louis Oliver) are a close-knit and loving family. One day, Harry is given a thumb drive by his verger, Edgar (a verger, for the non-Brits, is a caretaker for the church) that we’re meant to believe contains porn on it because Edgar has urges that he cannot control. Harry takes the thumb drive home and it inadvertently comes into the possession of Ben, who gives it to his tutor, Janice (Dolly Wells) to place a file on it. Janice opens up the drive and discovers heinous child porn on it.
Ben, who doesn’t know what’s on the thumb drive, admits to being the owner of the thumb drive before leaving the house. Harry sees what the thumb drive actually contains, and realizes that Janice believes his son is a pedophile. Harry has to protect his verger, so he can’t tell Janice the truth, and when Harry tries to claim that the thumb drive is his own, Janice refuses to believe him.
It’s clear that if Janice leaves the house, she’ll go to the police. Ben will be arrested, and even if it’s eventually proven that the child porn did not belong to Ben, his reputation and life will be ruined by the accusation. Harry tries to talk Janice out of going to the cops, and their argument is so animated that Harry accidentally pushes Janice down the basement stairs.
The predicament: A good person, Harry, has accidentally assaulted his son’s math tutor, and if she escapes the basement, she will ruin his son’s life. Harry does the only thing he can think to do, which is: Hold Janice captive until he can prove to her that the thumb drive did not belong to Ben. Harry’s wife, Mary, gets involved, and things quickly unravel and spiral.
How does a good person end up in a situation like this? The fact that this story is running parallel to Grieff’s suggests that Tucci’s character may also be a good person who found himself in an impossible situation. Grieff, from his prison cell, is trying to solve the missing person case of Janice for an acquaintance of hers, Beth (Lydia West), a journalist who also wants to profile Grieff for a story.
Inside Man is the opposite of dreary. The four-episode series is bursting with early season Sherlock energy, and the only real villain here appears to be circumstance. We feel immense sympathy for Harry, the tutor Janice, and even Harry’s wife, who at a certain point figures that murdering Janice is the only way out of this mess. Initially, it feels merely like a conundrum that needs to be solved, but as it becomes clear that the only solutions are dark ones, the series grows ever more intense. As viewers, even we can’t figure a better way out of the impossible situation, either. It’s maddening. What begins as a darkly comic puzzle box evolves into a lot of intensity and yelling at the TV screen. (My wife turned to me at one point and told me I needed to turn it off before I had a heart attack).
Tennant is fantastic here, as he always is, and likewise, there’s no surprise that Tucci is brilliant, especially for his ability to quickly generate sympathy for a character on death row. There are some nice supporting performances too, particularly from Dolly Wells, who is morally in the right, and yet is often so unpleasant and manipulative that we find ourselves siding with Harry against the woman chained up in his basement for no other reason other than she wants to do the right thing.
Inside Man, at only four episodes, is also a quick binge: Once it starts, it’s nearly impossible to stop (I watched it all in one sitting). There are some preposterous turns (it’s still a Steven Moffat series), and a few inappropriately comedic moments, but boy, I had a great time watching it. Indeed, the thing that I found myself yelling at the screen loudest was, “Give me a season two. Now!”