In 2018, the half-hour drama has become not only fashionable, but an ideal way for a new series to stand out among the throng of content out there, and to appeal to audiences already struggling to keep their head above the rising waters known as Peak TV. In other words, those who think they might not have it in them to become invested in yet another new TV series may find the shortened lengths (both episodic runtimes and total episode counts) of shows like Vida, Bittersweet, and Amazon’s upcoming mind-bender, Homecoming, appealing and therefore more conducive to their viewing schedule. In that case, at just six half-hour episodes, FX’s Australian import Mr. Inbetween does the notion one better, delivering a full season of a compelling, darkly funny hitman drama in one tight, superbly written, acted, and directed package.
Created, written by, and starring Scott Ryan, with every episode directed by Nash Edgerton, Mr. Inbetween is an expansion of the star's 2005 mockumentary, The Magician, though now the character of Ray Shoesmith is a little older, and the things he does for a living have begun to take more of a toll on him. Not much, but some. He’s still a violent guy who will kill people for money, collect debts by threatening a man’s wife and kids, or just outright beating someone to a pulp, but despite his highly specialized profession (if you want to call it that) Ray also contends with more pedestrian concerns, like raising his daughter Brittany (Chika Yasumura), taking care of his sick brother Bruce (Nicholas Cassim), watching over his best friend (and fellow criminal) Gary (Justin Rosniak), and beginning a relationship with Ally (Brooke Satchwell), an EMT he met at a dog park. As the title suggests, the show’s drama lies in the tricky balance between the warped reality of his profession and Ray’s more commonplace personal concerns.
In bringing Ray to television, Ryan and Edgerton join a group of shows focused on characters the audience isn’t supposed to like but nevertheless does. In a sense, Mr. Inbetween is right at home with the characters of Succession, though for obvious reasons, the show is a kind of companion piece to the recent Emmy-winner, Barry. The tones are similar, too, though Ryan plays Ray with a coiled menace made more unnerving by his toothy, sociopathic smile. It’s the kind of performance Ryan was seemingly born to deliver. In the opening moments of the first episode, Ryan reveals the peril lurking behind that smile. He capitalizes on it again near the episode’s end, doubling down on the visual disconnect of a guy who looks like Ray out for a stroll with his daughter while eating ice cream cones.
Whenever the seams of Ray’s double life are exposed, it’s done so in a way that toys with the audience’s investment in him. Many of the people he encounters in the premiere walk away (well, it’s questionable whether one of them can walk) a little worse for wear, but the next episode quickly asserts that Ray is, in fact, a stone cold killer. From then on, every interaction he has — especially those that are particularly banal — is tinged with the possibility of extreme brutality. It’s an effective escalation of the character’s predisposition toward and willingness to engage in violence, and it completes the picture of who Ray is and what he’s capable of, like when Tony Soprano murders a “rat” in ‘College.’
Though the series lives and dies on how Ryan's performance, it also owes a great deal to its episodic structure. At just six half-hour episodes, Mr. Inbetween exemplifies the idea of working less, but doing more. The narrative isn’t so much serialized as it is serialized enough. Events follow in logical order, but the series draws the viewer in without the obsessive need to show every detail. Case in point: In the premiere, Ray casually assaults a guy who bumped into his daughter and insulted him on the street. There are ramifications for that action that include a court date and mandatory group counseling instead of jail time. The series only shows the latter; it’s a smart choice that keeps the story moving forward and the narrative’s focus right where it should be: on Ray.
What’s most impressive about the series is how much it manages to do in the relatively small amount of time it has. The scope is fairly narrow and focused mainly on the tenuous division of Ray’s personal and professional life, but a larger narrative involving his best friend Gary, a Russian brother-in-law, and a conflict of interest with a crime boss named Freddy, played by Damon Herriman (Justified, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood) soon emerges. The result makes the world of the series feel larger, more dangerous, and, at times funnier. Through it all, Ryan and Edgerton keep the series’ tone precisely balanced, offering a taut personal drama that also delivers pitch perfect moments of dark comedy and extreme violence.
A six-episode Australian crime series might seem like the unlikeliest of additions to FX’s eclectic lineup, but since it’s one of the best new shows on the network this year (and maybe on TV period), importing Mr. Inbetween will go down as a wise decision.
Mr. Inbetween continues next Tuesday with ‘Unicorns Know Everybody’s Name’ @10pm on FX.