With HBO’s “Barry” winning acclaim and awards (including Emmys for Bill Hader and Henry Winkler), is there really space for another show about an enforcer who also just happens to be an average guy? I have to admit that the premise of FX’s “Mr. Inbetween,” an Aussie import premiering tonight on the cable network, produced a great deal of skepticism in this critic who is just exhausted with male anti-heroes we’re supposed to identify with in between their outbursts of awful behavior. Written, starring and created by Scott Ryan, “Mr. Inbetween” does boast a unique structure in that it’s a half-hour dramedy that runs only six weeks. It also comes to TV with a talent behind the camera, director Nash Edgerton (Joel’s brother), who helmed “Gringo” and “The Square”—he directs all six episodes. Having binged the entire season, I’m not sure that “Mr. Inbetween” distinguishes itself to stand out in one of the most crowded fall seasons I’ve ever seen but I guess the only thing that really matters is this: I would totally watch season two.
The main reason for that is Ryan himself, who charismatically plays Ray Shoesmith, who isn’t exactly “a hitman with a heart of gold.” His heart is more bronze. Or something even lower. There are many familiar beats in “Mr. Inbetween.” Ray is enforcer for a criminal who works out of a strip club, of course. He runs afoul of some Russians, of course. He has a daughter from a previous marriage, a brother who’s sick, and starts a new relationship. Been there in almost every show like this one. He even goes to anger management class almost as if it’s a requirement of a show with this plot structure.
What makes Ray and the show overall more interesting is a relative lack of regret or guilt. This is not a story of a man trying to “go straight” as much as just one who spins the various plates in his life and one of those plates happens to exist in a very violent world. A lot of anti-heroes on TV are really big softies forced into violence. Not Ray. One of the most compelling scenes in the season features Ray explaining why he bashed a bloke who bumped into his daughter and then swore in front of her. As he puts it, people are assholes because everyone lets them be assholes. These guys will think twice about being an asshole again. He's not wrong.
Even in anger management classes, Ray places himself above fellow attendees because he only beats up blokes, never hitting women and children. He’s very good at moral equivocation. Most people who do shady things are. It’s how they sleep at night.
And yet Ryan is also careful to not make Ray too much of a social justice hero. He’s a violent, vicious man. The second episode opens with him making a man dig his own grave before Ray shoots him; cut to Ray talking to his daughter about whether or not Santa is real. This is no Reticent Hitman looking to go straight. Being an enforcer may be the only thing he’s actually really good at.
There’s a bit of an imbalance in “Mr. Inbetween” in that it feels like Ryan and Edgerton are way more interested in Ray’s violent world than his domestic one, although that alone makes it unusual as most of these shows focus on "rehabbing" their bad guys more than this one does. The show comes to life most often when Ray finds himself in dangerous situations, such as the morbid insanity that makes up the back half of episode three or the entire season finale. And it’s interesting that Ryan feels no real need to wrap up most of his subplots in that finale—so much so that I had to check to make sure this was a six-episode order. Although I found it almost refreshing that Ryan doesn’t land the season with traditional climaxes or lessons learned. People like Ray don’t always learn a lesson. And "Mr. Inbetween" closes in a way that made me eager to see more. That's certainly not true of every male anti-hero story of the '10s. Maybe there is room for just one more.