The Wrong Mans: Structure, Storytelling, and Trope Usage in Episode 1

Dale and I wrote a long thing about The Wrong Mans and how it does all sorts of things really well. You can read the whole thing at TVquila by clicking here, but here’s an excerpt to whet your appetite. 

Warning: The first episode of The Wrong Mans doesn’t deliver anything particularly new. It doesn’t even do anything in a particularly new style. What it does is completely understand both its broadest tropes and its minutest details, and manipulate them to deliver an exceptionally concise and well-paced package.

To cover these bases, we’ve broken down this review into Content Delivery and Style, Production Details, and Tone and Characterization.

Content Delivery and Style

Most content in this episode gets delivered via tropes—flashbacks, drunk dials, ex-lovers-as-boss, etc. Note, “trope” is often treated as an equally pejorative synonym of “cliche,” but when used correctly, tropes function to define the style and scope of any given narrative. Humanity has been telling stories for tens of thousands of years, and it’s completely natural that some narrative patterns work better than others, and thus are repeated more often. As these tropes and patterns are absorbed into the fabric of culture, they make outstanding shorthand. The creators of The Wrong Mans understand you don’t need to reinvent the wheel for a story to feel fresh. In fact, sometimes it’s far more interesting to rely on the audience to predict what is going to happen, based on the information of genre and tropes you’ve given them.

The opening scene is a perfect example of this simplicity: well-timed, detailed, well-edited simplicity. In fact, let’s run through the whole episode (you can watch it here) and talk about construction. Note how much information is delivered without any dialogue or open exposition.

The camera pans to reveal a man (Sam) passed out. His alarm clock goes off, and he hauls himself into the bathroom, where he groans at the mirror, brushes his teeth, and then walks out. As he pulls the door to, we see another guy sleeping in the bathtub. Sam walks into the kitchen, where empty beer bottles and cans are foregrounded in the shot. He opens the fridge to pull out an empty bottle of orange juice, and we get our first flashback. The lighting changes from blue to red, Sam’s clothes change, he is obviously downing a bottle of wine. Now we realize why the OJ carton is empty: it was a mixer, and a lot of drinks were consumed. This also tells us the guy in the bathtub is drunk, not dead. This gently subverts  expectations, as we may have assumed (and were likely intended to assume, since we are presumably familiar with Wrongly Accused Murderers) that The Wrong Mans woke up to a dead body and subsequently missed noticing it.

As Sam walks through the house, we get more flashes, all sequential and obvious without being obvious. Last night he was: dancing, sadder dancing, and finally super depressingly drunk dancing with people who are obviously more sober. Everyone else realizes how drunk he is and feels sorry for him. Next we see him on the stairs, where he’s drunk dialing ‘Lizzie,’ declaring he still loves her and saying things like “Still got my, um, black V-neck . . . ” Present-Morning Sam gets through the house and past the flashback to find his bike tire locked to a pole, but no bike attached.

In the first one-and-a-half minutes we have learned: he got very very drunk last night, his friends and acquaintances feel bad but mostly distance themselves from him, he’s hung up on an ex-girlfriend, he’s hanging onto his adolescent past but is also somewhat trying to be grownup, he has bad luck but is also somewhat the victim of his own ineptitude. There’s just so much content delivered so simply. It looks ‘easy’ but is so difficult, because simple is never easy.

And then a car swerves and flips right in front of him. Just like that, plot setup.

The very fact Sam has a paper bag to breathe into at the crash scene tells us he hyperventilates a lot. Is he a nervous sort? Do absurd and terrifying things happen often around him? All of the above? One detail, not really foregrounded – there’s no egregious closeup of the bag with exaggerated noises or anything of the kind – but that detail is loaded with meaning.

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