Allie Fox, the main character in Paul Theroux’s 1981 novel The Mosquito Coast, has soured on the American Dream — particularly what he sees as a culture of waste and conspicuous consumption, of exploited laborers and trash heaps piled high with the latest in disposable technology.
In the current TV adaptation of Theroux’s book, Allie is played by the author’s nephew, Justin Theroux, and the character has an added streak of techno-paranoia; his rants about the evils of capitalism are infused with a fear of the surveillance state.
Allie would probably hate being on Apple TV+, the entertainment arm of a company responsible for phones and computers that are near-obsolete the second they leave the box and a corporation in possession of more data on its customers than perhaps any other in human history.
And I’m not sure Allie would be overjoyed that the new Apple TV+ adaptation of Mosquito Coast has buried much of the character’s self-aggrandizing ideology like so many iPods filling so many landfills. A father whose professed desire to protect his family at any cost develops into a dangerous obsession, Allie was always a predecessor to Peak TV anti-heroes like Walter White and Marty Byrde. In the hands of Luther creator Neil Cross, The Mosquito Coast has indeed become an entertaining but utterly derivative successor to Breaking Bad and Ozark. It’s also a show whose very existence is itself a cautionary tale — mirroring the themes the story tackles — about how the American marketplace reshapes anything with a maverick spirit into a more commercially recognizable form.
The seven-episode first season doesn’t exactly even get audiences to the title location, nor is it exactly a prequel. The series starts in roughly the same place as Peter Weir’s 1986 feature, with Allie, wife Margot (Melissa George), slightly rebellious daughter Dina (Logan Polish) and slightly more acquiescent son Charlie (Gabriel Bateman) living mostly off-grid in Stockton, California. Allie has a job on a farm, and is working on the magical ice machine that’s the lynchpin of the book but barely factors into the series. Rather than packing the family up on a deluded utopian mission to Central America, Allie has to uproot the clan when criminal charges from his past resurface and the NSA (embodied by agents played by Kimberly Elise and James LeGros) comes calling.
Yes, this Allie starts off lecturing Charlie about American waste and his own under-appreciated genius. But Apple TV+’s Mosquito Coast is less about Allie’s hubris and more about a family being antagonized by the NSA, border militias and Mexican drug cartels. You don’t need long Allie diatribes to recognize how these external forces represent the things our hero hates most — intrusive government, reactionary militarism and an amoral free market. In the early episodes, director Rupert Wyatt captures the American condition in nightmarish tableaus like a homeless encampment in an abandoned mall; shimmering junkyards of discarded resources (definitely not including Apple products); and then, on the other side of the border, the opulent compound overseen by a vicious drug queenpin (Ofelia Medina).
After the first episode or two, Allie and the series go lighter on the tough-to-love ideology. In the original novel and film, Allie is half burnt-out flower child and half reactionary prepper; here he’s hacking, codebreaking and building improvised devices, the increasingly unhinged head of an increasingly reluctant Swiss Family MacGyver. When Mosquito Coast is about how Allie and the family handle the adversity that Allie himself is causing, there’s real suspense. When the adversity is coming from by-the-numbers baddies, the show plays more like a knockoff of Breaking Bad and the latest season of Ozark, a show that’s already a copy of a copy of a prestige drama. At its best, this Mosquito Coast is far worse than the former and a bit better than the latter. Late in the season, when the characters are forced into parallel games of cat-and-mouse set in well-shot Mexico City locations, some episodes are solid enough to stand on their own, though they lose all narrative and thematic connection to Theroux’s novel. Mixed blessings.
If Harrison Ford slowly revealed the depths of Allie’s mania in the film, Justin Theroux gives him a shorter fuse and plays him with his ego closer to the surface; that’s good for ratcheting up the intensity of these episodes, but perhaps doesn’t leave much room for unravelling in a second season. It also positions George to deliver the more intriguing and enigmatic performance. There are moments in which the actress wordlessly gives us glimpses of what Margot finds enticing and scary about her husband. In this take on the character, Margot has real agency in navigating the nomad life the Foxes are living — and Mosquito Coast is nothing if not Nomadland with lots and lots of artificial complications — and the always-interesting George avoids letting us come to easy conclusions as to whether that’s a good or bad thing. There’s a comparably challenging dynamic that Polish and Bateman have to play, as their characters both admire and doubt — frequently at once — a man who may only admire himself.
It’s a deep supporting cast, with LeGros and especially Elise adding dashes of humor and gravity to characters who would otherwise be purely functional. Scotty Tovar similarly humanizes former cartel henchman Chuy, a bundle of Mexican clichés both the writers and Allie treat as a means to an end. As a gum-chewing, throat-cutting, Spanish-mangling American hitman, Ian Hart seems to keep wandering in from a different show, stealing scenes and leaving.
In 2021, if your last name isn’t “Theroux,” I’m not sure what Mosquito Coast means to you as a property. I happen to think it’s a great book and a very good movie (featuring my favorite Ford performance), but how many viewers are likely to notice that Apple TV+’s version is so often an adaptation in name only? The title, and the blueprints from other shows, seem disposable, or at least casually, even wastefully transposable.
How predictably American, Allie Fox would probably think.
Cast: Justin Theroux, Melissa George, Logan Polish and Gabriel Bateman
Creator: Neil Cross, from the novel by Paul Theroux
New episodes premiere Fridays on Apple TV+ starting on April 30.