With a depressed cop, a troubled war veteran and general blue-collar gloom and doom, we’ve seen this cliche-heavy drama a thousand times – and Mare of Easttown is a hard act to follow
“Folks say that as we get on, life is a series of indignities,” muses a judge to a police chief in a small American town. “I’m not sure I see it that way. Because once you don’t give a shit how you look or what people think, then nothing seems like an indignity.” He Irishes up his coffee with whiskey. “If my man boobs are blocking the view of my shoes, so what?”
It’s a good question, the kind of lugubrious, cod-philosophical rhetoric that bejewels the dramatic wasteland of American Rust (Sky Atlantic). But there is a problem. Between page and shot, the man boobs have gone walkies, and it’s the judge’s beer belly that is obscuring his shoes. Is nobody paying attention to continuity?
For many years now, adding “American” to a title has not only burned my British biscuits, but served as a guarantor of suckery. American Beauty? Sucked. American Gothic? Sucked. An American Werewolf in London? Sucked, and was historically inaccurate. American Sniper? Don’t even. American Psycho? A rare exception.
Could American Rust buck the trend? Not according to the US reviews that come trailing the show like a cloud of stink. Indeed, the opening episode lurches from cliche to cliche. A depressed police chief in unbecoming plaid (played by Jeff Daniels with all the pep of previous roles removed) unsurprised at human folly and venality? Check. Another cop – an Iraq war veteran – wondering if the antidepressants are neutralising the amphetamines, or vice versa? Check. A lantern-jawed twentysomething doomed to be stuck in a small town after not taking up a football scholarship? Check. A fireball with grim blue-collar job and a horrible ex? Check. Hundred per cent cloud cover and a palette of bleached-out browns and greys? Check.
Predictably, the police chief, Del Harris, is navigating a doomed romance with the fireball, Grace Poe (played by Maura Tierney, best known as Abby in ER). There are also after-hours brawls in car parks, and more duelling banjos on the soundtrack than John Boorman programmed in Deliverance. Meanwhile, we also have the sense that the leading cultural activity is – as in The Deer Hunter – exterminating local wildlife, and there’s a conspiracy over a body found in the old mill.
And yet, for all of its boilerplate qualities, American Rust doesn’t stink as much as forecast. Partly this is because of the script, which – thanks to some good, understated dialogue – bucks the general mood , ie that this show was not so much written as collaged from odds and ends of other police procedurals. It’s also because Daniels and Tierney remind me so much of David Harbour and Winona Ryder in Stranger Things.
Even so, it isn’t great. The first episode opens with Harris in front of a pestle, mortar, scales and knife, measuring out his meds very, very slowly. No doubt, this scene is intended to simulate the opioid fog that has enervated this Pennsylvania valley, but that surely is an aesthetic mistake: viewers are supposed to sense others’ enervation, rather than losing the will to live themselves just four minutes in to the show. Worse yet, the ritual is recycled repeatedly, as though Harris is locked in some opioid Groundhog Day.
It’s as if Mare of Easttown never existed. Once again, we are in a washed-out burg with a sad-eyed cop who’s unlucky in love, slow in locomotion, but with their heart in the right place and the safety off their gun just in case things turn nasty. If you’re a superfan who started vaping and wearing unbuttoned flannel shirts to emulate Mare Sheehan (Kate Winslet) – the anti-style icon of Mare of Easttown – then American Rust might be what you need to get you to the end of 2021. But it probably isn’t.
This is all surprising given that John Dahl – director of 90s stylish neo-noir movies Red Rock West and The Last Seduction – helmed this opening episode (and four of the other eight). If you are going to tell another story about the underclass struggling on the fuzzy end of the economic lollipop (we learn that there is 12% unemployment in this fictional town and personal income here is 25% lower than the rest of Pennsylvania; no doubt we will own find out that many of the downtrodden workers gave Trump an electoral bump), at least make drama that doesn’t look and feel as though we have been here too many times already. But perhaps what the judge said is right. After a while, dignity becomes expendable.