Audience Network and David E. Kelley adapt Stephen King’s Mr. Mercedes, offering an uneven, but still satisfying crime thriller from the horror maestro.
The year of Stephen King continues, as David E. Kelley’s adaptation of the author’s Mr. Mercedes becomes a series on AT&T’s Audience Network. The series joins the likes of the recently released The Dark Tower, the upcoming IT, and the still-airing (and increasingly ridiculous) The Mist on Spike. So far, the reception of King’s big year has been mixed, with the two projects that have already been released failing to inspire audiences or critics, leaving Andrés Muschietti’s IT and Kelley’s Mr. Mercedes to pick up the slack and deliver where the other two couldn’t. Audiences are still a few weeks away from the former but Audience Network subscribers – i.e., Direct TV customers – get the latter today, and it delivers a slow, uneven, but still satisfying crime thriller from the horror maestro.
The series is something of an outlier with regard to the other King adaptations in 2017, in that the horrors depicted here are not supernatural or otherworldly in origin. This certainly isn’t anything new for the author, as he’s written grounded but still very dark and, in some cases, outlandish material before, with stories like Misery, Dolores Claiborne, Apt Pupil, The Shawshank Redemption, and Stand By Me among them. Mr. Mercedes, for its part, is an extended cat-and-mouse crime drama starring Brendan Gleeson as recently retired police detective Bill Hodges and Harry Treadaway (replacing the late Anton Yelchin) as Brady Hartsfield, an epic online troll who is also the titular Mr. Mercedes.
Mr. Mercedes – or the Mercedes Killer – is the one that got away when Bill was still Det. Hodges, before he “pulled the pin” on his lengthy career and settled into a life of day drinking and generally being the neighborhood crank. Divorced and with an adult child he no longer sees or speaks with, Bill spends his time feeding his pet tortoise, berating kids playing in the street outside his house, or barking at Jerome (Jharrel Jerome), the kid who cuts his lawn and helps Hodges out with computer stuff when it goes past his limited understanding of technology. The rest is fairly well worn stuff. It’s the retired-police-detective-with-the-one-unsolved-case trope that’s been seen countless times – The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo even went so far as to give it a name, calling Detective Morell’s unsolved murder the “Rebecka case”. Here, instead of a single murdered girl, the Mercedes Killer plowed a luxury vehicle through a crowd gathered at a job fair, killing several people, including a young mother and her child, in a gory opening sequence that puts a not-so subtle spin on the disparity between the rich and the poor that the story seems interested in tangentially exploring.
The kicker is: Mr. Mercedes isn’t wealthy or part of the one percent; he’s a down-on-his-luck minimum wage earner at a pale Best Buy/Circuit City imitation, that’s on life support like so many brick-and-mortar stores are in Jeff Bezos’ world. In addition to his economic woes, Brady lives with his alcoholic mother Deborah (Kelly Lynch), dodging her incestuous advances to escape into the basement where he whips up some nifty gizmos and performs CSI: Cyber-level internet magic to torment Bill Hodges. And if all that weren’t creepy enough, Brady also moonlights as an ice-cream man trolling Bill’s neighborhood.
The first hour does a lot of heavy lifting in terms of setting up both characters and how they relate to one another. Brady goads Bill first with a lengthy letter, encouraging him to reach out online so the retired detective can have a sense of purpose and be further tormented. Kelley follows most of the novel’s early beats as far as getting Bill and Brady communicating with one another, but the first episode is mostly spent exploring the separate, sad, lonely lives of two men connected by an act of horrific violence. The dual examination reveals an imbalance between the two, however, as Brady’s twisted existence is so outlandish that there’s nothing for the viewer to invest in outside of an anticipatory cringe or two courtesy of his home life. Even with his extracurricular activities, and a fine performance from Treadaway, he’s just not that interesting of a character early on. Like most online trolls, Brady is a one-note instigator and both King and Kelley seem to find it difficult to color him with anything more than his reprehensible actions. That puts the emphasis on Bill, which, given that Gleeson embodies him, works in the series’ favor.
Strangely, what works for Mr. Mercedes isn’t Gleeson’s increasingly paranoid relationship with the Mercedes Killer, but rather the increasingly frank relationship he has with his neighbor, Ida Silver (Holland Taylor). In the two episodes made available, Gleeson and Taylor delivered the kind of interpersonal dynamic that helped breathe life into the drama. Watching Bill cope with the confusion of his neighbor’s straightforward sexual advances leavens the project demonstrably. Gleeson and Taylor have an easy chemistry that results in Bill becoming a far more engaging protagonist to watch, if only to see how his relationship with Ida will play out.
Though he’s known for delivering fast-talking legal dramas like Ally McBeal, Boston Legal, and The Practice, Kelley made a splash earlier this year with another adaptation, the HBO drama Big Little Lies, in which he found compelling drama exploring the interior lives of a group of women in Monterey, California, despite the narrative revolving primarily around a murder mystery. It’s essentially the same principle here: Kelley has a familiar but otherwise compelling deadly event fueling the plot, yet that’s not what gives the story life. It’s not often that you see a subplot and wish it was the entirety of the story you’re watching, but the back-and-forth between Gleeson and Taylor – especially during an early scene when she walks in on him holding a revolver – is so good and so much fun to watch that the idea of the Mercedes Killer quickly fades into the background. Those character beats are important, as they elevate the somewhat tempered thriller component in the first two hours.
It remains to be seen whether or not Kelley can properly turn up the heat on the central conflict of Mr. Mercedes, and if he can find a way to make the titular killer interesting beyond his crimes and chaotic personal life. But there’s plenty to be satisfied with while that’s being sorted, as the series shows signs early on that it is ready to go beyond the classic cat-and-mouse formula, and to deepen the story with grace notes that touch on everything from aging to senior citizen dating and relationships to economic disparity. Those elements admittedly make Mr. Mercedes something of a mixed bag in the early going, but there’s just enough to like about the elements that make up the series to continue watching and hope they come together to make something greater.
Mr. Mercedes continues next Wednesday with ‘On Your Mark’ on Audience Network.
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