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Mr Inbetween and the murky morals of TV's serial killers

In a confused moral universe, Mr Inbetween charts the trials and tribulations of your average neighbourhood hitman.

Just because you kill people on a regular basis doesn’t mean you are a bad person. As the moral underpinnings of a television series, even in a post-Tony Soprano and Walter White world, this is a hard sell.

Maybe it’s a sign of the times but it seems television is increasingly presenting the opportunity to suspend judgment in the face of the unspeakable. Dexter was a particularly cruel serial killer but he retained a certain fastidious charm: “I’m a very neat monster.” And his victims deserved it.

More recently, Barry followed the gruesome fortunes of a former marine turned assassin trying to redeem himself by becoming an actor. “I’m a good man,” insisted Barry as the body count climbed. Soon people were dying whether they deserved it or not.

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Now, drama-comedy Mr Inbetween offers a peculiarly Antipodean iteration of the likeable killer in Ray Shoesmith. He’s the divorced dad of adorable eight-year-old Brittany. He takes care of his brother, Bruce, who has motor neurone disease. He’s a remorseless hitman. After a hard day making a man dig his own grave before shooting him, he lets Brittany paint his fingernails green. What’s not to like?

Fortunately, we are not required to take any of this too seriously. The first episode had me running whimpering from the room. Mr Inbetween has also had me laughing out loud. Ray is the kind of guy who brings a fluffy koala with the empathetic message “Harden the f--- up” when he goes to visit his mutilated mate, Gary, in hospital. He starts to try to dismember a body (Gary’s brother-in-law. Long story). The putative corpse objects vigorously and runs off. “He wasn’t dead,” notes Ray with the carnivorous grin of a man who knows that life, like a hitman dramedy, is darkly absurd. “Well, thanks, Captain Obvious,” says Gary.

Ray’s reluctant attendance at a court-ordered anger-management group – some punk made his daughter drop her ice cream – offers the best therapy-related scenes since Coronation Street’s Peter Barlow took his barking family to an AA meeting. Ray isn’t in a position to take the moral high ground, but why let that stop him? He hit a bloke, he explains patiently. “No offence, but I don’t really want to sit here with a bunch of f---ing wife bashers and child beaters.” Offence is taken. Cue brawl at anger-management meeting.

Scott Ryan – where has he been? – is magnificent. He brings a laconic, boneless composure (murderous eruptions aside) to the part of Ray. As he waits for help to dispose of a body, he flips casually through a magazine. He has a code that he kills by: they deserve it. If you look at it right, he’s making society a better place. Except when – oops – he kills the wrong guy.

Even his efficiently stripped-down moral universe has its complications. Ray doesn’t like to lie. No, he tells Brittany, Santa isn’t real. Neither is the Tooth Fairy. Or Jesus. Unicorns, he’s willing to concede, exist. He’s not a complete monster.

Mr Inbetween began life as Ryan’s 2005 student film, The Magician, a short mockumentary about a Melbourne hitman that was shot in 10 days on a budget of A$3000. It achieved a certain cult following. Now Mr Inbetween has been taken up by American channel FX.

It’s hilarious, uncomfortable viewing at a time when it seems that ethics in public life are becoming increasingly situational and that lying, bullying and demonising the powerless is just politics as usual. “See, if you’re in jail and you disrespect someone, you can end up dead. There are consequences,” says Ray. “But out here in the real world, there’s no consequences.” It turns out no one cares.

MR INBETWEEN, Sky SoHo, Wednesday, 8.05pm, and Sky Go.

Video: SpoilerTV

This article was first published in the November 17, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.