TV Review: ‘Mr. Mercedes’ Falls Into Cliché But Remains Gripping

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It’s been a busy year for one Stephen King, who has had a resurgent year within pop culture. Not only does he have “It” and “The Dark Tower” hitting theaters in, but “Mr. Mercedes” makes its way to television. “Mr. Mercedes” is based on one of King’s later career hits, only released in 2014. The novel follows a detective as he continues to pursue one of his last cases as he goes into retirement. The novel was almost instantly optioned by David E. Kelly, one of the TV’s greatest writers. While the series delves into cliché from time to time, it is an undeniably gripping game of cat and mouse that any fan of detective stories will find intriguing.

“Mr. Mercedes” opens with one of the grislier scenes of TV this year but will be undeniably memorable for doing so. A group of unemployed workers is waiting outside a job fair when a Mercedes pulls up. The man behind the wheel puts on a clown mask, and floors it, running over dozens of victims and killing 16 people. The preceding moments introduce us to some of these victims, and while they may be basic sketches of characters, they’re easy to identify with. It’s a smart strategy that helps draw us into the series as we’re introduced to the larger story.

The series fast forwards two years and follows retired cop Bill Hodges (Brendan Gleeson), a hard-drinking man who lives alone with post-traumatic stress disorder. Contributing to his PTSD is the continual messages from the Mercedes killer. We’re quickly introduced to the killer himself, a young computer technician Brady Hartsfield (Harry Treadaway). Each of the actors makes the most of their screen time, and showcase strong talent. Gleeson is excellent as always. He is the reason you tune into the show, and if you’re a Gleeson fan, this is must-watch. Treadaway is also solid in the role, though he plays it a little heavy handed at times. It’s still a strong performance, and is a strong follow-up to his work in “Penny Dreadful.” The role was a smart choice and should be an interesting step for his next big role.

The world is populated with other interesting characters who try to reach out to each of the characters to little avail. Bill’s neighbors Ida (Holland Taylor) and Jerome (Jharrel Jerome) provide him with basic communication. His former partner Pete (Scott Lawrence) keeps tabs on him and takes him out to lunch. He also begins a relationship with the sister of the woman who owned the stolen Mercedes, a woman named Janey (Mary-Louise Parker). Meanwhile, Brady is preyed upon by his mother (Kelly Lynch) to stay in a co-dependent and incestuous relationship. He also works at an electronics store with his friend Lou (Breeda Wool). The talent surrounding the leads is very strong and helps build the world with reliable characters.

The performances are strong throughout the show and writing is solid as well. Unfortunately, even the well-written dialogue is held back by some of the narrative ties to King’s original work. King’s work is strong as a novel, but some of the threads feel tired on TV. The incest plotline, in particular, feels surprisingly weak as several crime shows, and even “Game of Thrones” has made the grotesque commonplace. By holding onto this plot, the show spends time on character development that is not as shocking as it might have been a decade ago. Overall, the show will appeal to those who like detective stories, but general audiences may find it a tough watch.

The direction is strong and the camerawork is fun to watch. The first episode feels a bit by the book, but as the series progresses, the show quickly gains its own swagger. Once through the first episode, pacing becomes less of an issue, though it still hurts the show. The show finds its footing in episode 2 and only grows from there. The show moves from making some on-the-nose music selections to more enjoyable and fun calls later in the season. The cinematographers take more chances with the camera work as it progresses, and helps liven up the show. The team also crafts montages to parallel and diverge the stories of the two leads that help pick up the pace. The editing and narrative combine to help the show create a story worthy of King’s legacy.

Overall, “Mr. Mercedes” is an imperfect series that still finds a way to be gripping. The back and forth dialogue provides a strong base for the actors to build above average performances on. The show looks and feels like an above average crime show, and should be enjoyable to those who appreciate the genre. While it is not for everyone, this is one of the stronger Stephen King adaptations on TV over the past few years.

What do you think? Did you enjoy “Mr. Mercedes?” Let us know in the comments below!

“Mr. Mercedes” airs on Wednesday nights on Audience Network.

GRADE: (★★★)