David E. Kelley has been on a hot streak of late, with his series “Goliath” and “Big Little Lies” successfully negotiating the demands of both upmarket TV consumers and commercially minded drama purveyors. Unfortunately, “Mr. Mercedes,” despite its excellent cast, breaks that streak.
On paper, the combination of Kelley and Stephen King, the author of the book that the AT&T Audience Network series is based on, is a felicitous match. King’s novels often supply the kind of character nuance and wry detail that keep a reader turning the page, no matter how strange things get. For all his reputation as a master of various genres and their attendant spectacles and mythologies, King has a gift for putting readers inside the complex psychologies and dilemmas of believably layered people.
Kelley, for his part, has a knack for keeping the pace of a one-hour program lively and yet unrushed, and Amazon’s “Goliath” and HBO’s “Big Little Lies” saw the former broadcast network stalwart adjust nimbly to the challenges of streaming and pay-cable platforms. “Mr. Mercedes,” however, is an assemblage of shopworn elements that does not offer much in the way of crisp pacing, character depth or originality. The hoped-for qualities that could be mined from King adaptations and injected with Kelley’s usual verve are largely absent, and the end result is repetitive and saturated with sallow superficiality.
Brendan Gleeson plays Bill Hodges, a character type that fiction, TV and film cannot resist: the hard-drinking retired detective who can’t shake a big case from his past. The opening minutes of “Mr. Mercedes” depict the crime that deeply scarred Bill, and the sheer brutality of the act makes his PTSD and affinity for the bottle understandable.
But that gruesome crime also sets the stage for the dramatically inert developments that follow. The identity of the man who committed the crime is made obvious early on, and the viewer is expected to spend hours traversing the unhappy, claustrophobic mindscapes of two men who are not ultimately worth the effort. One man enjoys killing others, and the other has almost nothing in his life aside from the case that won’t leave him alone, and their frustrations — and their prickly demeanors — never take on the kind of nuanced specificity that this kind of dark saga requires.
A cat-and-mouse game between a cop and the disturbed killer who taunts him could be fascinating: Even when the audience knows how and why the characters are linked, the unexpected evolution of their relationship could supply suspense, as well as insights into the darker corners of human nature (and “Hannibal” did those all things with panache).
But “Mr. Mercedes” comes off as a plodding compendium of serial-killer and cop cliches, all conveyed via an unrelentingly dour tone and almost suffocating aesthetic of drab greens, blacks and browns.
“Mr. Mercedes” appears to be trying to say something about the state of America, the costs of toxic masculinity and the fraying of the social fabric. But its claim to fine-grained cultural commentary is hard to take seriously when a number of supporting characters, especially a manager in a big-box store, are either underdeveloped or cartoonishly broad. And though it depicts an incestuous relationship between an overbearing mother and her disturbed son, the show’s commitment to a certain kind of enervated realism keeps it from going full Gothic, which might have been one way to stir things up.
Like too many allegedly ambitious one-hour dramas of late, and despite the attempts of the talented cast to enliven their characters, this drama is a slow-moving mishmash that seems designed to try the audience’s patience.