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As an actor, Taylor Sheridan tended to alternate between square-jawed authority figures and square-jawed thugs, but his prospects were perhaps limited by coming up at a moment when TV was accentuating vulnerability over rugged cheekbones. He appeared in various initials-driven shows, your CSIs and NCISs, plus a memorable run on Sons of Anarchy, before transitioning into a writing and directing career that can be interpreted as focusing on revitalizing the kind of manly melodramas that, in a different era, might have kept him employed in front of the camera.
Sheridan makes bombastic, macho throwbacks, and while the features Sicario and Wind River should have offered proof that he’s more than capable of writing female characters, albeit women struggling in male-driven professions, they feel like exceptions rather than the result of a focused intention. Or perhaps he hasn’t found a muse of the sort his Sons of Anarchy boss Kurt Sutter has in Katey Sagal.
Particularly since his transition to TV, where he created the cable juggernaut that is Yellowstone, Sheridan has chosen to take big ideas and drown them in a sea of testosterone. It’s possible to behave heroically in Taylor Sheridan’s worlds, but there are too many corrupt and antiquated systems in place for a character to emerge as a true hero. It’s a relief that the Coen brothers already adapted Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men, because it would have been the most on-the-nose of Sheridan projects. And Sheridan projects, even the best of them, are already plenty on-the-nose.
Created with actor Hugh Dillon, Sheridan’s new Paramount+ drama, Mayor of Kingstown, is very much a Taylor Sheridan production, a discourse on flawed masculinity told, with much mumbling and grunting, through a critique of the American prison system. It’s not a milieu made for subtlety, and none is offered. But through three episodes, the bluster and the questionable choices of where to focus too often overwhelm a unique context and well-intentioned discourse.
The setting here is Kingstown, Michigan, a company town where the main industry is punishment. Within a 10-mile radius, Kingstown boasts seven prisons, some for men and some for women, “20,000 lost souls with no hope, no future,” as Mike McLusky puts it.
Mike (Jeremy Renner) is a former felon, once a shot-caller in one of the local hoosegows, now working with his brother Mitch (Kyle Chandler). Mitch is known as the Mayor of Kingstown and, operating out of a dingy, sign-free office, the McLuskys are masterful fixers, power brokers who have positioned themselves on a precarious perch between the police officers and guards representing law and order, the myriad local crime syndicates, and the inmates. As Mike explains it — and Mike is constantly explaining his vocation in the most dogmatic of terms — “We don’t break the law … We bend it to make peace for everybody.”
Mike and Mitch’s cop brother Kyle (Taylor Handley) is cautious about the family business, and mother Mariam (Dianne Wiest) wants nothing to do with her two eldest offspring. There but for the precarious wheeling and dealing of the McLuskys goes a full descent into chaos for all aspects of Kingstown.
Everything in Kingstown is broken. The guards are more interested in vengeance than rehabilitation, the cops care more about settling scores than regulating any of the area’s civilian gangs — all with offshoots operating inside the prisons — and the figures with the most clout are often the ones behind bars. Everybody has their hands in everybody else’s pockets, everybody has a price, and everybody knows that they’re heading toward an ugly fate. That’s especially so for Mike; any time he encounters a dead body, somebody wants to remind him of his own date with the Reaper, which must be why any time anybody will listen, Mike mentions his dream of escaping to Wyoming and studying wilderness cooking. But nobody gets out of Kingstown.
Sheridan is well aware of the racism embedded in the system. He knows the barbarism of the death penalty and the hollow lip service about reform. It’s a dingy, run-down world he’s created, but the challenge of what to do within this framework isn’t always clearly met. Though there’s an arced story related to incarcerated crime boss Milo (Aidan Gillen, appearing so briefly in the opening three episodes that I couldn’t figure out what accent he’s attempting), the show is needlessly procedural, with each episode built around the intricate negotiations Mike has to undertake in order to prevent an apparently weekly prison riot. He’s the only person anybody trusts, but, unlike Mitch, Mike doesn’t have an unerring sense of proportional response, an ethical bottom line, or an iota of restraint. He’s a firecracker, which isn’t what you necessarily want from somebody whose job is to keep everything from going up in flames.
If the procedural aspects weren’t so repetitive, I’d probably really dig Mayor of Kingstown, because even if hints of Oz and especially The Shield abound — the show yearns for 2005 like a convict for a conjugal visit — the series’ type of prison fixer feels like a unique version of a familiar antihero. But I kept getting stuck on how often this depiction of the carceral swamp, one that disproportionately punishes people of color, is centered on a white family constantly explaining that carceral swamp to those people of color. Thus far, the show’s most harrowing and most egregious scene finds Mike lecturing a Latinx family about the mechanics of death row. As if they don’t know. Meanwhile, Mariam’s literal job is teaching mostly minority inmates about the nation’s history of racial injustice. As if they don’t know. I’m not quibbling with the demographics, just with the storytelling point-of-entry choice.
Paramount+ has no problems with swearing or female nudity, but Sheridan has to keep the penis-measuring metaphorical. The series is one unhinged shootout, car crash and nose-to-nose threatening conversation after another. There’s so much bluster that it will be a breeze for most of the show’s target audience to completely ignore that Sheridan’s authorial perspective on the prison system is more compassionate and progressive than their own.
Before he became known primarily as our least impressive Avenger or our least musical aspiring singer, Renner excelled at playing this sort of wounded, man-out-of-time protagonist — men of shifting morals and limited enunciation, men with faces the world takes every opportunity to punch. He’s a 1970s movie star, which makes him a perfect Sheridan leading man. This is material well tailored to his strengths, though I’m not sure any actor could make Mike’s mansplaining of capital punishment more tolerable. It’s a scene that still irks me; if, instead, Mike had sat in the observation room in edge-of-tears silence, I think it would have packed the punch Sheridan desired.
In scruffy Boy Scout mode, Chandler is an appropriate foil for Renner, though his best scene partner is a particularly hungry bear who is both a metaphor and a flimsy excuse for Hawkeye to brandish a crossbow in a non-Marvel property. I stopped trying to figure out the names of most of the male characters other than Bunny, the giant drug dealer played with high energy, in a largely mopey series, by Tobi Bamtefa.
The women in Mayor of Kingstown, unfortunately, are compartmentalized as mothers and wives or strippers and hookers. So far the series is guilty of an egregious underuse of Wiest, while the second-billed woman in the credits, British actress Emma Laird, has appeared in only two, nearly dialogue-free, scenes.
I think there’s potential in Mayor of Kingstown once it stops doing the averted-riot-of-the-week structure, and if the show finds a way to tone down its blue-collar white savior trappings and foreground the crime-and-punishment introspection. There are good elements and worthwhile ideas here, unless Sheridan is just going to be content with making another of your angry uncle’s favorite shows. Honestly, though, Paramount+ would probably be happy with that.
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