Writer and director Taylor Sheridan has carved a strong niche for himself. His films have found strength in their diverse portrayal of crime in America, complete with interesting and empathetic character studies alongside an obvious care for depicting under-reported areas of the country.
After the sweeping success of his first television show, Yellowstone, he returns to Paramount+ with a new one: Mayor of Kingstown. Developed with Yellowstone actor and musician Hugh Dillion, the 10-episode series follows the McLusky family, led by titular mayor Mike (Jeremy Renner), who run the business of corruption in Kingstown, Michigan, where the entrenched incarceration system looms over every aspect of the town.
On paper, prisons and the systemic incarceration of Americans seems a perfect fit for Sheridan. But Mayor of Kingstown struggles to use this compelling starting point to say anything of note. It has the tools to do so, but lacks in its execution.
Most of the series’ messaging about the brutality of incarceration is reduced to simple violence. Depraved acts serve either as shock value in an attempt to say “look how fucked up everything is,” or to become an educational moment where the momentum stops to show why something obviously horrible is bad. But it’s not enough to say incarceration and corruption is simply bad, which Mayor of Kingstown (as of the first three episodes sent to critics) seems to be missing.
There are some bright spots to the series, though. Dianne Wiest is a marvel as the matriarch of the McLusky family, bringing a subdued power that the cast of warring men never exhibit. Her frequent monologues as she teaches incarcerated women about the unknown history of captivity are gripping, and she is able to steal a scene away from any of her costars.
Tobi Bamtefa also makes a strong mark as Bunny, the leader of the Crips in Kingstown. His magnetic and jovial performance plays well alongside Renner’s, and the moments the two share bring out the best in both actors. But it’s also the kind of performance that makes you wish the series followed Bunny instead.
Let’s get to Renner. The actor remains one of the most baffling men in Hollywood, from repeated attempts to make him a blockbuster leading man, to his subtle accumulation of Oscar nominations, to the existence of the Jeremy Renner App. The character of Mike is not outside Renner’s range, but it lacks cohesion. He alternates between sudden, violent outbursts, relentless snark, and an overdone pensiveness, as if he is still trying to work out the role in each scene, never relaxing into it. TV has obviously seen better versions of this type of character, an antihero always on the verge of doing the right or wrong thing, but by Episode 3, Mayor of Kingstown has seemed to give up on Mike having any specificity.
Mayor of Kingstown in general has a “too much” problem when it comes to the cast. The series is packed with side characters, more than it knows how to handle, who are mostly variations of corrupt men differentiated only by job title and nationality. There are so many various threads in the air that it feels like the writers never decided which one would be the most compelling, so they included them all. Is the main driving plot the threat of the Russian mob? The increasing corruption of the police? The dissolution and transformation of the McLusky family? Choose your own adventure, and hope the show sees it through.
It’s hard to talk about Mayor of Kingstown without mentioning the way it handles race. The systematic discrimination and oppression of people of color through the prison system has become a much-discussed topic in media in recent years, led by works such as Ava Duverney’s documentary 13th and the book The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander. Mayor of Kingstown does not ignore this element, but it unskillfully navigates this theme. Racism may be mentioned briefly to make a point, but it’s obvious Sheridan lacks the confidence to fully embrace this as a driving factor of incarceration. And given that the corrupt white cops take more of a leading role than any character of color—who are almost all violent or power-hungry criminals—the show comes away with more of a muddled take on race and incarceration than should be expected from a skilled writer like Sheridan, especially given the wide amount of available material on the topic.
The end result is, unfortunately, a gritty Michigan-set mess. Mayor of Kingstown wants to be brutal and dark, it wants to be educational, it wants to be character driven, but no element is handled with enough care or attention. And it’s honestly a shame, especially considering Sheridan’s previous filmography, that it misses the mark so broadly.
Still, it’s not impossible to like aspects of Mayor of Kingstown. If you’re a fan of Renner, he’s in it a lot. If you enjoy the grittiest of crime dramas, then you’re sure to be drawn in. But as a whole, the show just doesn’t doesn’t work, at least not yet. And given the depth of many of its missteps, I’m doubtful it will find a way to recover.
Leila Jordan is the TV intern for Paste Magazine. To talk about all things movies, TV, and useless trivia you can find her @galaxyleila
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