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‘The English’ and ‘Mammals’ review: Emily Blunt and James Corden can’t lead two Amazon series out of the woods




CNN
 — 

It’s a streaming jungle out there, which might explain why Amazon offers up a couple of odd series featuring the stars of “Into the Woods” this weekend: “Mammals,” in which James Corden prepares for life beyond latenight, and “The English,” with Emily Blunt, which gives a lot of prestige British actors the chance to play cowboy.

Both run six episodes, with “The English” structured as a limited series, and “Mammals” paving the way for future seasons, while incorporating too many twists in its dramedy format to discuss much about what happens.

As for “The English,” Blunt’s Cornelia Locke, an English aristocrat, narrates the show by thinking back to 1890, when she was led on a mission of revenge in the American west by Eli Whipp (Chaske Spencer), a Pawnee ex-cavalry scout who leaves the Army to pursue a land claim in Nebraska, before getting sidetracked along the way.

A man of few words, Eli speaks in terse tough-guy dialogue, saying things like, “I’ve seen Hell, and I’ve made Hell.” Yet he and Cornelia are brought together by a tragic event from the past, one that takes them across treacherous country and includes a lot of fine actors for relatively short periods, among them Ciaran Hinds, Toby Jones and Stephen Rea.

Created by Hugo Blick (“The Honourable Woman”), and counting Blunt among its producers, the series features gorgeous cloud-specked skies and sweeping horizons in what feels like an homage to John Ford westerns. But most of those elements (including the aforementioned dialogue) feel assembled in such a self-conscious and heavy handed way as to blunt the tribute, making it difficult to discern for whom this exercise is intended, other than creating a TV vehicle to bring Blunt’s marquee name to Amazon’s content-hungry shelves.

James Corden and Melia Kreiling in Amazon's dark comedy

“Mammals” fares a bit better, with Corden’s Jamie and his wife Amandine (“Tyrant’s” Melia Kreiling) expecting a child and seemingly hopelessly in love when the series begins. When tragedy strikes, the ensuing grief gradually opens not only wounds but secrets, before flashing back to fill in gaps about how the two met, and why he might not be entirely inclined to trust her.

Series creator Jez Butterworth (whose writing credits include “Ford v. Ferrari”) incorporates lots of quirky moments, such as singer Tom Jones popping in as, um, Tom Jones. The supporting cast features Sally Hawkins, a classy addition to anything, as Jamie’s sister, although in this case playing a character whose arc feels highly peripheral to the central plot.

US audiences might not be completely familiar with Corden’s TV work (he starred in the well-regarded UK series “Gavin & Stacey”) before he became CBS’ later-night host, while continuing to dabble in musicals like “The Prom,” “Cats” and the aforementioned “Into the Woods.” “Mammals” gives him an opportunity to show off his acting chops, though the bigger revelation might be Kreiling, who more than holds her own.

While both series should help bring attention to Amazon Prime, neither completely works. “The English’s” main advantage is that it represents a relatively brief, closed-ended commitment, whereas “Mammals” (a poor title, incidentally) is a bit more enticing with its ruminations on dealing with loss and the vagaries of relationships.

Granted, when it comes to premium TV, attracting promotable stars can be half the battle, and Blunt and Corden fit the bill, with the latter recently contributing a fair amount of unintended publicity for his off-screen behavior as a restaurant patron.

That said, there’s probably not enough strictly on their respective merits to lead either of these Amazon shows through the jungle and out of the woods.

“Mammals” and “The English” premiere November 11 on Amazon Prime.

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