Tuesday, August 21, 2018

TV REVIEW: Audience Network's 'Mr. Mercedes' - Season 2

Audience Network's Mr. Mercedes returns for its 10-episode second season on Wednesday, August 22 at 10/9c. The drama stars Brendan Gleeson, Harry Treadaway, Jack Huston, Jharrel Jerome, Justine Lupe, Breeda Wool, Maximiliano Hernandez, Tessa Ferrer, Nancy Travis and Holland Taylor.

Read on for my thoughts on the new season after screening its first two episodes.

In its first season, Mr. Mercedes stood out in a very formulaic and familiar genre because of the high caliber acting and high-end production values. It was Audience Network stepping up in a big way to show the industry how invested it was with original programming. Since then, the network has still only made moderate advances forward in the industry. Mr. Mercedes went completely unnoticed on the awards circuit and only made a handful of year-end best lists from the top television critics. And yet, that was probably because it's so difficult to find the show to began with. That's the largest barrier to entry. The viewer has to find out if they even get the Audience Network. If they don't, then it's simply too difficult to find the original programming being done there. But for those lucky enough to see the drama, they found a clever story that put its own twist on the tired "detective becomes obsessed with a serial killer" story. Again, that's such a familiar plot setup that has really been oversaturated in the marketplace. But whenever a creative team is able to find a new take on the material, it can still absolutely be compelling and entertaining for the audience. NBC's Hannibal did that by focusing on the dreamlike quality of the visuals. Netflix's Mindhunter did that by obsessing over the psychology of a serial killer instead of the hunt for a serial killer. BBC America's Killing Eve did that by telling the story from the female perspective. And Audience's Mr. Mercedes did that through a pair of tremendous performances from Brendan Gleeson and Harry Treadaway. Detective Bill Hodges and Brady Hartsfield were locked in this match of obsession with one another that turned lethal at so many turns. And yet, both of them survived the events of the first season even though the finale also offered a fair amount of resolution to the case. Sure, Brady got his head bashed in and Hodges had a heart attack. But both of them survived to live another day.

That's what makes the start of the second season so fascinating and possibly trepidatious. Now, Mr. Mercedes is based on a trilogy of novels written by Stephen King. The first season exhausted the entire story of the first book. As such, it would be easy for the audience to assume that the second season would be an adaptation of the second book in the series. And yet, the creative team has decided to skip straight to the third book because that allows them to continue telling the story of Brady Hartsfield. That's where the main worry of the new season comes from. The fear is absolutely present that the show is going down the same path as Showtime's Homeland. That drama had a fantastic first season. Then, it chose to keep its complicated antagonist around for much longer than the story justified because the writers just loved Damian Lewis so much. By the time his story came to a close after three seasons, it lost all the power that it once had. The show would have been better off containing his story to one season and changing it up with a new main plot if it had to return for a second season. Mr. Mercedes resolved the Mercedes killing case in its first season. Hodges caught Brady before he was able to carry out a second mass casualty event. Brady was set to face justice until he fell into a persistent vegetative state. The finale closed with the doctors telling Hodges that it was unlikely that Brady would ever make a meaningful recovery. This is the state he will remain in for the rest of his life. And now, the show is contorting itself all over the place in order to justify keeping Treadaway around for another season as Brady terrifies Hodges and the other characters that make up this world.

As such, the audience will have to ask if we are willing to go along with that for another season. It runs the risk of the show just repeating the same patterns as the first season. Brady and Hodges become obsessed with each other while they are terrified that the rising mountain of death around them is going to claim them sooner rather than later. It was meaningful that Brady wasn't able to kill himself. It meant that his plan didn't work out and that Hodges bested him. But that didn't need Brady becoming a gork and unable to move out of a hospital bed for over a year. That's the amount of time that passes in between the seasons. In that time, nothing has changed for Brady. He is still being looked after by a team of doctors and nurses. But that's about to change as the season gets moving. The only explanation that the show cares to muster in that regard is "medical experimentation." It's a really lackluster response as well. The show introduces a pair of newcomers who are very invested in the outcome of Brady's condition. Jack Huston and Tessa Ferrer play a husband-and-wife team who are working together to prove that an experimental drug that hasn't been approved for human testing can actually lead to medical breakthroughs that cure a plethora of diseases. In the early going, that's their only purpose in the narrative. They exist so that Brady can get better. But again, it still feels like the show is cheating the audience because it fooled us into believing that Brady's story was done and that Hodges could move on with his life and stop being obsessed with him. And now, all of this only threatens to spiral him into obsession once more.

Of course, it's easy to understand why the show is making these creative decisions. Brady is the title character after all. If he was no longer around, then there would be no reason for the show to be called Mr. Mercedes. Moreover, the show is based on King's novels where these are the specific twists that also happen. The show is just getting to them much sooner in order to continue the same story without changing too much in the new season. And yet, there are significant changes - especially when it comes to tone. The show prided itself on being very grounded in reality during its first season. It was a show set only a couple of years ago that still understood the economic anxiety that people were facing but wasn't being widely reported on. The show was very interested in telling the tale of humanity becoming more dependent on technology and the horrors that that could invite into our lives. It was very prescient and timely. And now, the second season takes a turn into a more Stephen King genre. That's probably all I should say about that for the moment. But it's definitely asking a lot for the audience to just go along with it. It's mostly presented as a new way to keep the foundation of the show exactly the same. It's just going about it through plot devices that are no longer as grounded as they once were. That too could destroy the show over time. These first two episodes are very tentative in presenting this new focus as they get back into the swing of things. But the audience will have to trust that there's a point to all of this and not look back with the belief that the show should have just been a limited series.

Despite all of this though, the acting and production values remain top-notch. Brendan Gleeson continues to be so compelling in the lead role. And now, Hodges does find himself in a better place in his life. Sure, he's also wondering what purpose there is in his life that is now keeping him going. He caught the Mercedes killer. He knows exactly where Brady is. He no longer has to be stressed out to the point of physical damage to his body because of it. So instead, he opens a private investigator business with Holly. He does so mostly to encourage her own skills as a detective instead of him actually enjoying the work he is doing. That's an important distinction. Right now, the thing that brings him the most joy is rebuilding a gazebo for Ida in her backyard. That relationship is still very welcoming and sweet as well. Sure, there's some wonkiness with Ida suddenly moving to a new career. And yet, that plot also brings in Susanna Skaggs who was so terrific in the final season of AMC's Halt and Catch Fire. As such, I'm curious to see how it dovetails with the rest of the ongoing stories. Again, the show has built trust with the audience to tell stories that are going to be immediately satisfying. If something doesn't quite work, then the show will quickly move on to the next twist. Through the first two episodes, the drama is still just setting up this world once more. But there is the promise that things are about to get deadly again very soon which is bound to inspire new reactions from the ensemble of characters.