OK: Show of hands. Who’s bone-tired of stories where a psychopath becomes obsessed with the cop who’s after him? Oh, let’s throw in the bona fides: Psychopath is sexually abused by his mother and humiliated at work. Cop is a hard-bitten, drunk, out-to-pasture wreck who’s barely been keeping it together since the mass-casualty Psychopath Event that he failed to solve. A sort of cop-psychopath tango plays out; there is either redemption and closure for the weary gumshoe, or something more ambiguous. But has anyone done a study on real-life cases in which a mass-murderer develops a specific obsession with the detective trying to catch him? I bet in real life it’s pretty rare. You wouldn’t know it from movies and TV, though.
Mr. Mercedes is adapted from a Stephen King story. King spins a good yarn, generally, and many of his novels have become, oh, let’s just say successful on screen. This one? The real crime isn’t the mass murder that starts things off. It’s putting actors like Brendan Gleeson in something so ham-fisted.
Gleeson plays Bill Hodges, a “retired” (read: asked to step away after horrible mass murder case left him with raging PTSD and a serious drinking problem) detective who’s part Clint Eastwood in Gran Torino and part Gary Oldman in The Dark Knight. He’s one of those guys with “hunches” and a “gut” (literally and figuratively) who sometimes makes his coworkers roll their eyes.
Two years after his inconclusive investigation into a gruesome incident involving a Guy With Issues driving a stolen Mercedes straight into a queue of kindly, noble, aspirational folks waiting for a job fair to open, Hodges is pretty depressed. He’s… you know, let himself go. You know how some retired people get lost and sad and fat and dead because they don’t have a hobby? If I was warned about that as many times as Brendan Gleeson is in the first four episodes of Mr. Mercedes, I’d need a heavy-ass prescription, too. His former partner (Scott Lawrence) goes on and on about it. His next door neighbor, Ida (Holland Taylor), chides him nonstop, including while propositioning him for sex. He has a pet tortoise, which should telegraph a certain… slowness. It’s deeply appropriate, not just for the character but for the script.
We meet the killer way before Hodges does: He rolls into his miserable IT job at an electronics store out of Office Space listening to — wait for it! — “Pet Sematary” by the Ramones! Get it? His job sucks and his coworker is constantly harassed because for some reason people can tell she’s gay by looking at her and everyone in this universe is the kind of person who spouts nastiness at IT-worker lesbians. You don’t see firm evidence that this young man with the thousand-yard stare is the killer, you just know it, largely because there’s no other reason to place the scene there. Poor Brendan Gleeson has to wade through 37 solid minutes of tsk-tsking and warnings about his deteriorating physical condition before something happens. He gets an email containing images and information only the killer would know. Even the distorted voice of the murderer notes that Hodges has gained weight. Then it up and vanishes! So Hodges is pretty activated, obviously, and promptly becomes obsessed with finding the sick fuck who killed unemployed nice people and even babies with that Mercedes, but as an old-school dick (meaning detective, though he can be the other kind, too), he knows bupkiss about malware, hacking, or really anything to do with computers.
Why has he suddenly received this taunt after two years? I have no flipping idea, and neither do the writers. The point is, the game’s on, Hodges has cop-moxie but no tech chops, and now a psychopath wants to fuck with him for… reasons. I lost count of the number of minutes Hodges spends not enlisting help from his friends (friend, anyway) at the police department, but luckily the Mega Work Ethic Awesome College Bound Kid from Down the Street not only mows lawns for book money but knows all about the nerdly arts, so Hodges gets an innocent minor involved. From there, we play the Raise the Stakes game for… many episodes.
Here’s the thing: You have Brendan Gleeson. Holland Taylor. Harry Treadaway. You have Jharrel Jerome. Kelly Lynch. Mary-Louise Parker. These people are really, really strong actors. Nimble, charismatic, versatile performers. And you give them this unbearably glacial script and make them do all this dumb stuff that’s so predictable it hurts. It’s dire in its repetitiveness. It’s plodding in its pacing. The script is not good. I mean, forget about the molested and bullied weird guy who lives in his mom’s basement and occasionally murders people for either some specific reason or because they happened to be there, depending: The crime here is making a guy like Brendan Gleeson boring.
Don’t get me wrong, I watched four episodes and I stayed “interested” in finding out if it was going somewhere new and unusual (not so far). The way it’s filmed provides a low thrumming wire of tension that’s totally competent; you feel Gleeson’s vulnerability keenly. By the fourth episode, you’re getting a pretty thorough look into the psyche of the killer, and I’m not sure, maybe that’s the interesting place it’s going, that both the “good guy” and the “bad guy” will be shown to be, like… I don’t know. Something more than the stereotypes of “this time it’s personal” depressed retired cop and fish-eyed, zero-affect psychopath with a shit-ton of sexual issues, many of them involving his mother. There’s a moment where Gleeson’s character has a panic attack, and if you’re someone who has those, you’ll be amazed at how precisely real they got that. There are plenty of interesting individual moments, because there are good performers in these roles.
But it’s asking a lot of viewers to get four hours into a story without an inkling that it’s going to be anything more than a parade of clichés. If in fact it is going to do that. If it’s not, I return to my original question: Is anyone not utterly weary of this hackneyed trope? Because unless you have an insatiable appetite for it, I’m going to say—and say with regret, because I love the cast—that you have a lot of TV options right now and you aren’t missing much if this doesn’t make it to the front of the queue.
Mr. Mercedes premieres Wednesday, August 9 at 8 p.m. on AT&T AUDIENCE Network.
Amy Glynn is a poet, essayist and fiction writer who really likes that you can multi-task by reviewing television and glasses of Cabernet simultaneously. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.