'One Dollar': TV Review

50 cents on the dollar, at best.

A dollar bill is at the center of this new murder-mystery from CBS All Access, but would you pay more than that to watch something that doesn't quite work?

There is a gimmick at the center of the new CBS All Access series One Dollar. And no, it's not whether you'll give one (or more) of your dollars to subscribe to the streaming service to watch this series — though the tension in that might arguably be greater than what is on the screen.

No, the gimmick is that a dollar bill changes hands — ominously at times — allegedly connecting a bunch of people to a murder, or maybe seven murders. Or just to each other.


Clarity is not a strong suit of One Dollar and, unfortunately, that ambiguity is played off as a creatively mysterious gambit that fuels the series when in reality it just makes things murky and uninteresting. Blame the dollar bill. But whatever the construction series creator and writer Jason Mosberg was going for here remains not only vague but annoyingly suspect, as if the concept of the dollar floating around town and into various characters' hands was enough to keep viewers interested in a large, ambling mystery without a ton of forward momentum. 

In fact, if you knew nothing of the concept before watching One Dollar, the drama at the center doesn't seem even remotely interesting enough in that first episode to set the hook. Set in an aging Rust Belt city of dubious origin where the steel industry is fading and people in town are barely holding on — well, the blue-collar ones and the poorer folk are, while the upper crust is merely busying itself with parties and philandering — One Dollar first introduces us to Garrett (Philip Ettinger). Part loner, part dimwit, Garrett is saddled with a 2-year-old daughter and has almost no means to pay the town's flinty child care provider to take care of her while he works at the plant (the daughter's mother has abandoned Garrett apparently — One Dollar believes that the less you know the more eager you'll be to find out, which is a dubious proposition in most dramas). While the show flits between a couple of other brewing subplots in the pilot, our attention is supposed to be on Garrett and, by extension, how down and out the town is.

Some uptown housewives bump into Garrett when they've crossed the proverbial railroad tracks in search of something you can only get where the poor folk live and one of them thinks Garrett is homeless, so she puts a dollar bill in his empty coffee cup.

And so it begins. What "it" will be exactly looks to be a gimmick that plays out over the whole season, but the camera always comes back to see the dollar that Garrett carries around and then, in the closing minutes, hands to another person in a transaction. The person who gets that dollar (in this instance, singer-songwriter Sturgill Simpson, making his acting debut and almost immediately becoming the most interesting thing about the series) then has their story, or at least part of it, told in the episode. At the end of the second episode, Simpson's character, named Ken Fry but called "Walmart," passes the dollar bill to Carol (Deirdre O'Connell), a local school teacher, and the third episode mostly follows her while keeping up with its other spinning plates.

You get the conceit here. Except — and this might prove either annoying or more intriguing, depending on your demeanor — Carol doesn't appear to pass the dollar to anyone and her story arc looks to be a one-off, so maybe she just took it with her when she retired? It's unclear. I kept waiting for the dollar to make its way to someone else, but the third episode — at least the review copy — ends without that happening.

Honestly, by that point, it didn't really matter. After three hours, One Dollar had introduced a number of storylines for its sprawling cast, but only one or two held much interest. Some very good actors are here but not getting enough quality to work with (Nathaniel Martello-White as an ex-detective who weirdly but not interestingly has insomnia; John Carroll Lynch, who runs the local plant; and O'Connell, the fleeting teacher, are fine examples). You want them to have more — and maybe each of them will run into that dollar later in the season — but there's not a lot of urgency to follow the rest of the stories to find out. And One Dollar doesn't make one murder (that might actually end up being seven murders) very interesting, which is problematic (and probably why the currency conceit was used in the first place).

By the second episode (CBS sent six for review), with the introduction of some not very effective attempts to make race an emerging theme on One Dollar, it became clear that what this show really is, at its heart, is American Crime, the ABC anthology, without all the good acting and interesting stories, but with that dollar. There's not enough good writing here, not enough motivation to follow characters that are either intentionally half-baked or are merely uninteresting. Characters have quirks, but the quirks prove there's not much else there. Smart people eventually do exceptionally dumb things. The early trends are not good.

Sometimes a murder mystery is best followed in a linear fashion. Sometimes a series that wants to introduce the backstories of a whole town needs to tackle that piecemeal or with more intrigue. And sometimes a drama on a streaming service is really just a network show with some f-bombs.

Cast: Philip Ettinger, Nathaniel Martello-White, John Carroll Lynch, Dierdre O'Connell, Sturgill Simpson, Christopher Denham, Kirrilee Berger, Gracie Lawrence, Nike Kadri, Joshua Bitton, Greg Germann, Leslie Odom Jr., Aleksa Palladino, Hamilton Clancy, Jeff Perry
Created by:
 Jason Mosberg
Directed by: Craig Zobel
Executive producers: Mosberg, Zobel, Matt DeRoss, Alexandre Dauman, Rafael Yglesias
Premieres: Thursday (CBS All Access)