Office politics is one of the big reasons why people hate working in offices (well, before the possibility of getting COVID-19 from a co-worker knocked that out of the top spot). It sucks, to be honest; people you need to trust in order to do your job are either undermining you or just not doing the work they need to do, making you scramble to cover their laziness. And when your job depends on commissions, the competition is a whole lot worse. In a new psychological drama, an ace salesman starts becoming paranoid after a huge sales pitch goes very wrong.
Opening Shot: We see a fancy waterfall shower head and a man underneath. Then we see that man checking out how his suit looks as he gets ready for a big day at work.
The Gist: Thomas Benson (Ken Nwosu) is an ace sales associate at Clayton Office Solutions, and he and his team are set to make their pitch to a huge client, Murray Technology. He’s confident; when his next-door cube neighbor says “Don’t screw it up,” he says, smiling and with a bounce in his step, “Never have, never will.” There’s a lot of money on the line; he’ll get a £10,000 commission for being the team lead and landing this big fish.
But something goes wrong during the presentation; the wifi password for the conference room changed and he has no idea what it is. His team — Andy (Sean Sagar), Isobel (Susannah Fielding) and Becky (Ritu Arya) all swear that the new password was sent in an email. As he continues to get shut out of the wifi, something bends in Thomas’ head and he passes out. Suffice to say, Janice (Phoebe Nicholls), the president of Murray Technology, was unimpressed; she tells their boss, Carter (Ben Miller), that she’ll be looking elsewhere.
Even though his team members assure him that it isn’t his fault that they lost the contract — Isobel is especially sympathetic — Thomas is still distraught and humiliated. He wanted the bonus so he could take his wife Jess (Alexandra Roach) and daughter Millie (Daisy Boo Brandford) to Disneyland. But he’s more upset he buckled under pressure. When he gets to work the next day, he can tell that he need to win back his team’s trust; Andy seems especially suspicious. He also is now the target of pranks, like a Post-It next to a stapler that has an arrow and the word “STAPLER” on it.
Faced with having to rebuild a sales portfolio from small-fish leads, Thomas makes a bold move. He goes to Murray headquarters, stalks Janice and asks her to give him another chance; he’ll take her to an expensive dinner to redo his pitch. She reluctantly agrees, and he thinks he’s on the right track to fixing this screw-up. In the meantime, he has to deal with school pick-up time, where Millie can’t seem to shake a girl that makes fun of her hearing impairment. He tries to talk to the girl’s burly dad, and he basically shuts him down, and pretty rudely at that.
Isobel persuades Thomas to go for a drink with the team; he’s pressed for time but figures he can go before he meets Janice; she wonders if he’s actually happy in his life. When he gets to the restaurant, he waits an hour but Janice doesn’t show. When he gets home, however, he notices that the time on his phone and tablet is an hour off. He drives down in his pajamas to the restaurant, hoping to salvage the meeting, when he sees what really happened: Andy is sitting with Janice, and Isobel is there to make sure Thomas doesn’t come in and mess things up again. She claims she was reluctant to go along with the plan, but she says “It’s just business.” His car is towed and he has to walk home; the only taxi available is driven by the burly dad he had a row with at the school.
Contract secured, Thomas comes to work the next day chagrined; Carter gives the bigger bonus to Andy and Isobel, and calls Thomas the “team lead” with a wink to Andy. Thomas keeps seeing things that make it look like someone on his team is pranking him, but it may be in his mind. One thing he does know: The company may be downsizing, at least according to Isobel.
Our Take: Sticks & Stones (Original title: The Man) was created and written by Mike Bartlett, and it’s an odd duck of a show. It’s supposed to be a psychological thriller, but instead of centering around a big topic like serial murders or potential world-altering consequences, the stakes here are relatively small, at least to the outside observer. It basically revolves around the world, and politics, of an office solutions firm. It’s even pretty vague what “office solutions” means. Furniture? Tech? Both? Even the bonuses available to Thomas and his team don’t seem all that big.
But, to Thomas, this is his world. He’s a salesman at heart, and, as he tells Janice, nailing down the deal is more important to him than any money that might be involved. He’s got ambition; he wears expensive suits but lives in a small house and drives a not-so-new Ford Focus. So, even though the stakes seem small, they’re huge to him. And when he buckles under pressure, we don’t know whether these Post-Its and other pranks are real or in his head. We don’t even know if he’s even happy with his marriage.
The small scale stakes are likely why the show is played with a lighter tone than most psychological thrillers; Thomas is being tortured by Post-Its and the kid who’s making fun of his daughter. And it also may explain why Nwosu plays Thomas as borderline creepy; the bounce in his step and constant half-smile on his face are strange, and when he went to Murray Tech to stalk their CEO, he almost felt like he was asking her out on a date. But that off-putting manner that Nwosu projects might just be a way to indicate how dedicated he is to this job, especially because Bartlett is only taking three 45-minute episodes to tell this tale and needed to take some expositional short cuts.
All of this is to say that we’re not sure whether Sticks & Stones is going to stay so small-scale or is going to get grander the longer Thomas stays in his head and tries to get back at the team members he thinks are undermining him. We already know he’s changed his tune with Millie, telling her to get back at her tormentor after first telling her to ignore the girl. So will this get bigger, or will this be just a too-serious knock-off of The Office?
Sex and Skin: Nothing, although it does seem like Thomas and Isobel flirt with each other a little bit.
Parting Shot: After seeing what he thinks are prank Post-Its all over his cube, and after he’s told by Isobel to watch his back, Thomas sees a Post-It on his back that says “TEAM LEADER” with an arrow. He’s so pissed that, at pick-up, he tells Millie that sometimes she sometimes needs to stand up for herself. He then proceeds to key the taxi of the burly dad of Millie’s rival.
Sleeper Star: We’ll give this to Daisy Boo Brandford, who plays Millie. She’s profoundly deaf in real life, and she nails a character that is pretty confident in herself, despite the fact that there are people in her class that are mean to her.
Most Pilot-y Line: When he sees he’s getting a ticket outside of Murray Tech, Thomas says “Give me another one, I don’t care!,” because he’s so happy he got that dinner reprieve from the CEO. When the traffic enforcement cop starts writing another ticket, he runs and goes, “No, Jesus, stop!”.
Our Call: STREAM IT. Sticks & Stones is a weird little show, but the fact that it can go into a million different directions has us intrigued.
Joel Keller (@joelkeller) writes about food, entertainment, parenting and tech, but he doesn’t kid himself: he’s a TV junkie. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, Slate, Salon, VanityFair.com, Playboy.com, Fast Company.com, RollingStone.com, Billboard and elsewhere.