Mr. Mercedes is a fine example of Stephen King working in his frequent supernatural-free "Human darkness is the true horror" mode. In its new TV incarnation on Audience Network, Mr. Mercedes is a fine example of something that has been less frequent over the years — an effective Stephen King adaptation carried by strong performances and smart writing choices.
On the page, Mr. Mercedes is primarily a two-hander, a game of cat-and-mouse between initially suicidal retired detective Bill Hodges and increasingly homicidal tech guru and ice cream man Brady Hartsfield, but with David E. Kelley leading the writing team, the 10-episode series has expanded several supporting characters and reinforced thematic underpinnings.
The show starts in 2009 as hopefuls queue up before dawn for an Ohio job fair. Young people. Old people. A mother and a baby. Out of the chilly mist, a stolen Mercedes appears, with a masked man behind the wheel, and accelerates into the powerless crowd. Carnage.
Two years later, Hodges (Brendan Gleeson), the investigator whose career was truncated by obsession with the unsolved crime, is goaded to pull his life out of an alcohol-and-TV-fueled haze by taunting online videos from the killer. Brady (Harry Treadaway) is bored and ready to kill again and only Bill can stop him, assisted by precocious neighbor Jerome (Jharrel Jerome) and by Janey (Mary-Louise Parker), the sister of the guilty-stricken owner of the Mercedes.
Director Jack Bender handles the opening nightmarish vehicular mass homicide in a way that's bracing and perhaps even more unsparing than it needed to be, without feeling exploitative. Given that this scene will already send shivers down the spine of any follower of current events, it's a relief that Mr. Mercedes altered the location of a harrowing event that took place at a teenybopper pop concert in the book and would have been nearly unwatchable after the tragedy in Manchester, England. There's a lot of hovering in the vicinity of real monstrosities on Mr. Mercedes, especially if you know that Anton Yelchin was originally supposed to play Treadaway's role. Some shows couldn't withstand the number of dark clouds hovering around Mr. Mercedes, but this isn't a story about dimension-spanning killer clowns or antique-collecting vampires or even cars that kill of their own volition, and an almost bone-chilling recognizability is crucial.
Even moreso than King's book, Kelley has made a TV show about the nightmare of dispossession and the moral rot of purposelessness, especially in economically trying times. If the 2016 election, like the 1980 election, boiled down to low-income white insecurities, Mr. Mercedes is illustrating the lead-up, as a genre chiller. The ill-fated job fair is just the beginning of a period-specific world of disenfranchisement and obsolescence. Brady works at an electronics store where he goes from marking down surplus DVDs to making service runs for clients who are always on the verge of learning they could figure out how to restart their computers for themselves. Hodges is haunted by the crimes he couldn't solve and dread of becoming the sort of shadow-chasing ex-cop the active officers pity and make fun of. They live in a town of abandoned storefronts and failing businesses, where the recession hasn't ended and frustration is growing.
Brady embodies that frustration, and Treadaway (Penny Dreadful) gives a performance of varying shades of creepy. We know to be terrified of him early on, so Brady goes full-ghoul when nobody is watching, but when he's out in public, you can see how he would be unsettling but still able to blend in.
Although they don't share scenes directly, Treadaway is matched by Gleeson, who swings between disheveled impotence and glimpses of the cleverness that must have made him a great detective. The wise decision was made to add two lines of dialogue loosely justifying Gleeson remaining Irish, because if you have a character boozing and swearing colorfully, Gleeson in his native accent is a slurred obscenity-spewing artist. He brings a spark that explains a little of what Janey, played with trademark quirky tentativeness by Parker, sees in him.
As a TV show, Mr. Mercedes has slowed down the breakneck pace of the book and through four episodes, it achieves discomfort and encroaching nervousness more than urgency. Part of that is because Kelley and his team — which includes Dennis Lehane, no doubt bringing blue-collar unease — have built out the world around the two main characters.
Breeda Wool, memorable as Brady's customer-baiting lesbian co-worker Lou, offers a better-adjusted form of alienation. Kelly Lynch, as Brady's uncomfortably affectionate mother, takes a character who could have been played as a pathetic drunk and infuses the part with the regret of modest life aspirations truncated, another side of the series' Middle American disappointment. Gleeson's story is enhanced with a flirtatious neighbor (a terrific Holland Taylor) and worried former partner (Scott Lawrence's Dixon), characters who show Hodges' troublesome or callous treatment of other people, setting up his pugnacious online interactions with Brady.
The plotting of the series is such that after four episodes, we don't even seem close to the arrival of Holly (Justine Lupe), a book character whose eccentricities have me both anticipating and dreading their interpretation.
King is the master of the gut-punch, and Mr. Mercedes is often tough because Audience Network is letting Kelley and company go to some murky places. The show isn't heading to those places swiftly, but watching Gleeson and Treadaway playing out a deadly dance is gripping in its own way.
Cast: Brendan Gleeson, Harry Treadaway, Jharrel Jerome, Mary-Louise Parker, Justin Lupe, Scott Lawrence, Kelly Lynch, Robert Stanton, Holland Taylor, Breeda Wool
Showrunner: David E. Kelley, from the novel by Stephen King
Premieres: Wednesday, Aug. 9, 8 p.m. ET/PT (Audience Network)