Tuesday, August 8, 2017

TV REVIEW: Audience's 'Mr. Mercedes'

Audience will premiere its new original drama series Mr. Mercedes on Wednesday, August 9 at 8/7c. The drama stars Brendan Gleeson, Harry Treadaway, Kelly Lynch, Jharrel Jerome, Justine Lupe, Scott Lawrence, Robert Stanton, Breeda Wool, Mary Louise-Parker and Holland Taylor.

Read on for my thoughts on the new drama after screening its first four episodes.

2017 has proven to be a big year for adaptations of Stephen King novels. Of course, the prolific writer has always been very open to TV and film interpretations of his work. But right now, he really seems to be having a moment with the theatrical release of The Dark Tower over the weekend, Spike in the midst of airing its version of The Mist and the Audience Network set to prove it's capable of high-quality original programming with its adaptation of Mr. Mercedes. All of those projects are happening at the same time. Plus, this year will also see film releases of It and Gerald's Game. Of course, Stephen King adaptations have proven to be very hit or miss. The industry keeps doing them even though most of them don't turn out all that well (i.e. CBS' Under the Dome and Spike's The Mist). But the great horror mind has a great ability to tell a variety of stories in strange and different ways that allows for each adaptation to feel different. Mr. Mercedes certainly isn't like anything else from King's body of work. The TV adaptation even builds on the original novel to give the characters and world more depth as well. Throughout its first four episodes, it's quite the immersive experience that has a strong command of tone and performance. As such, it stands out as the best adaptation of a Stephen King piece of work in awhile.

Mr. Mercedes forgoes any type of supernatural horror that is common throughout a ton of King's body of work. Instead, it resides in the real world and depicts how the monstrosity dwells in humanity and can be exposed to a raw and unnerving degree and create epic moments of violence. It's grim and dark story material. The show opens with its darkest moment with a car driving into a crowd of people, killing 16 and injuring dozens more. It's a brutal display of violence. It's a sequence that may spark controversy for how much of the act is displayed. The show never shies away from this being a horrifying and tragic moment. It wants the audience to see it and be deeply disturbed by the visuals. It wants the moment to linger in our minds just like it does for the characters who are tasked with investigating the crime. It's very unsettling but very effective as well. It works because the show is aware of how violent it is and what that violence says about the people who live within it. It's not just violence in order to be edgy and original. It's not gratuitous. Every action has a clear and specific purpose. It sets the stage for a dark story that is bound to only get more psychologically complicated as the season goes along.

The story itself picks up two years later as it reflects on how the handling of this case forever changed the lead detective, Bill Hodges (Into the Storm's Brendan Gleeson). He is now retired from the force after going crazy trying to solve the Mercedes killings. He proved unsuccessful in that endeavor. And now, his life is full of anguish. There's no reason for him to get up in the morning. There's no reason for society to take him seriously. He feels invisible and unwanted by the world. It's a major theme that multiple characters tell him he needs to find purpose in his life or he'll be dead in six months. Those voices of concern come from his next-door neighbor, Ida (Two and a Half Men's Holland Taylor), and his former partner, Pete (JAG's Scott Lawrence). And yet, the only thing that can fulfill Bill's life in a meaningful way is this case. It's the one case that has lingered in his mind because it completely altered his reality. He also finds himself being tormented by the killer after he keeps delivering him messages. That inspires him to team up with a woman with a special connection to the case, Janey (Weeds' Mary-Louise Parker), in the hopes of solving it before any more damage can be done.

All of this has the trappings of a familiar serial killer-type of story. It's a game of cat-and-mouse between a respected detective and deranged killer. But the show subverts those expectations as well. Bill is no longer at the top of his game. People want him to drop this case because it's not good for his health. He's drinking more and becoming more belligerent in public as a result. As such, it's great that the show finds a way for Gleeson to keep his Irish accent because that adds a nice layer of authenticity to this character and the performance. It just wouldn't have been as good if he was forced to do an American accent. Gleeson is allowed to succeed in the role because that consideration was made. But he only covers half of this story. The other half comes from the actual killer, Brady Hartsfield (Penny Dreadful's Harry Treadaway). At first glance, he comes across as a completely unassuming guy working two jobs just trying to pull himself and his family out of economic hardships. But underneath the surface, he is a deeply disturbed individual. One traumatized by a lifetime of actions done both to him and by him. It's not just one event that can be used to define him as a killer. An entire life formed him into the man he is today. He's aided along that journey by his mother, Deborah (Magic City's Kelly Lynch), who is an addict with an overly affectionate relationship with her son. Seeing their story helps form the darkness and trauma of the story. It creates a world where all of this has the potential to build up into something big and disastrous. It once again works because of the performance by Treadaway. It's tragic if you go into this show knowing that the late Anton Yelchin was suppose to play the role. But the material still provides a tremendous showcase for Treadaway who is allowed to be much scarier here than he ever was on Showtime's Penny Dreadful.

The case itself does a strong job in unsettling the audience. But the careful and deliberant pacing of the series is very important as well. The writing of the show - led by David E. Kelley (who is having quite a year between this, HBO's Big Little Lies and Amazon's Goliath) - leaves it so the audience lives in these experiences for awhile. It's not looking to just rush through the plot. That's great because it allows us to watch some great actors deliver some truly strong performances. Gleeson and Treadaway lead the show wonderfully. But the series adaptation has also beefed up the supporting players as well. As such, it's fascinating to see Ida and neighborhood kid, Jerome (Jharrel Jerome), pull a smile and happiness out of Bill. It's significant to see Brady have an actual friendship with his co-worker, Lou (UnREAL's Breeda Wool). The worldview of the series allows all of these moments to happen together while also telling a bigger story about a specific place in time. This isn't a period piece but it's not set in present-day either. The killings occur in 2009 and the story of the season largely takes place in 2011. So, it's still in recent years while also having the hindsight to acknowledge the problems of society that many wanted to ignore. There are concerns about privacy and the fear that digital reliance will simply replace the need for electronics stores. Everyone is still largely unaware with just how widespread and dangerous hacking can be. Brady feels in control because he has that knowledge and can exploit it to his benefit. And yet, he's still living in a poor neighborhood with a mother who is over-reliant on his love and presence.

All of this sets up a show that is impressive to watch. And yet, the biggest hurdle Mr. Mercedes may face is the audience's awareness of the platform it is airing on. Audience Network has been doing original scripted shows for a few years now. Kingdom and You Me Her have their fans. But the network itself hasn't created too much noise for itself. Mr. Mercedes sets out to change that as it's a show that demands attention from a large audience. This could be a game-changer for the network as it sets out to be taken more seriously in a world of 450+ scripted shows. But how do you even get the Audience Network? I'm still confused. I don't how. It seems like it's only available to DirectTV and AT&T subscribers. As such, that could really be limiting to the potential audience for this show. This season has the potential to be a huge breakout. But these limitations could hinder the buzz. But again, I'm not sure what the ultimate reaction will be. I just know that the creative is strong. I'm also hoping that Audience keeps sending out screeners so that I can keep watching and talking about it on a week to week basis.