You, me and the dogs on the street know there is too much good TV to keep up with.
In the matter of the current crazy but delightful cornucopia, what we are witnessing is a strange amalgamation of commerce and boundless creative and intellectual endeavour. (Regrettably, much Canadian content can be excluded, but that’s another endeavour to explore.) You need to be an indefatigable collector to stay on top of things. And that just isn’t possible for most consumers, let alone connoisseurs. Things go unwatched, unloved. Allow me to point you in the direction of a small, largely unheralded show that truly deserves your attention.
Mr Inbetween (starts Tuesday, FX, 11 p.m.) is a true gem. And it won’t take up much of your time. It’s a testament to the copiousness of TV drama right now that it exists at all. It is also a testament to the almost unerring curating of the FX channel, which commissioned it based on a fairly obscure Australian indie movie. Maybe there are reasons tied to corporate connections between FX and the Australia pay-TV service Foxtel, but let’s just be glad it exists.
It’s a half-hour drama but a dark comedy, too. Only six episodes will air, for now – two each Tuesday – and the entire project amounts to a triumph in small-scale, character-based storytelling. Set in Australia, it’s about a thug, one Ray Shoesmith (Scott Ryan) who is trying to balance his personal and professional lives. Not that it’s an epic struggle. That’s not the point. The point is that he is a pro, collecting debts and frightening people, sometimes beating the bejeebers out of them, and he is also a dad, an ex-husband, a son taking care of an ill dad, a neighbour and a friend. We witness the little intricacies of his rather mundane life.
The idea of thug/enforcer as semi-normal human being with a personal life is hardly new. The series Ray Donovan makes a Grand Guignol opera out of the premise. But Ray Shoemith is not operating with a baseball bat in the darker sewers of Hollywood intrigue. His is a low-key world with low-key drama. A chap didn’t pay his gambling debt and must be spoken with. The chap is a harried salesman or such, living beyond his means. Ray is a bit lonely and when a woman chats him up while he’s out walking the dog, he hesitates too much, waiting too long before responding to the flirting. This is the stuff of life, the twists of the local, ordinary narrative. The stuff that great writers can make epic.
Mr Inbetween began life years ago as a mockumentary and was celebrated in Australia for its originality. Ryan made it and now he’s acting in the series, something he’s never done before. The result is an utterly entrancing performance. You can’t take your eyes off this guy. Ray is endowed with sublime patience in most aspects of his life and then required to inflict sudden violence. He’s a mixed-up guy but in a solidly believable way.
The series is unusual and is usually strong for several reasons. It doesn’t suggest outright that you root for Ray, or that you judge him as a toxic figure. It observes. Scenes last longer than you expect and you can practically feel the weather and smell the atmosphere – the scene in which he meets the woman while walking the dog seems to last forever. At the same time, the tone leaves you unsure of what to think. The interactions between Ray and his daughter are funny and touching, but not flamboyantly so.
Ray is no killer-with-a-heart-of-gold. He’s just a guy. He’s pleasant and yet there’s something chilling about him. He’s a unique personality of sorts but not a thinker. Yet, as the short series progresses, he’s obliged to think about where his personal and professional lives clash. Can he change? Does he even need to change?
The show is a little masterpiece of quiet, compulsively watchable comedy/drama. There are no big ideas here, but the strength of its small-scale narrative is breathtaking.