The adaptation of Stephen King’s thrilling cat-and-mouse detective narrative sadly misses the point and is left spinning its wheels
“Retirement, you hate it. Don’t you?”
“It’s an adjustment…”
This is a review of the television adaptation of Stephen King’s Mr. Mercedes, but after watching these episodes, now more than ever, does it feel necessary to push King’s “Bill Hodges Trilogy.” Go out and buy Mr. Mercedes, Finders Keepers, and End of Watch and treat yourself to some of the most enjoyable, addicting writing that Stephen King has turned out in decades.
This Mr. Mercedes is unfortunately not that Mr. Mercedes.
This year has oddly found itself turning into a King Renaissance of sorts, with a wealth of his material hitting the screen with more purpose and originality than ever before. That’s why it’s such a bummer that Mr. Mercedes falls into the same camp as Spike’s The Mist, rather than Andy Muschietti’s IT. Mr. Mercedes was a property of King’s that I was extremely excited to see being adapted, and even more so when it was revealed that it was going to be turned into a television series. This, however, is the definition of a paint-by-numbers detective show that’s not left with much of a heart and soul. It’s a messy and disorganized affair, sort of like a Cadillac running over a bunch of bodies at a job fair.
Mr. Mercedes tells the story of a retired police officer, Bill Hodges (Brendan Gleeson), getting targeted by a sadistic serial killer that’s hungry to cause more carnage in the most twisted way possible. King’s novel is about the monsters that are hiding inside of people, rather than the physical monsters out there in the world that so many of King’s other texts explore. Mr. Mercedes is interested in learning about the psychopaths that lurk everywhere underneath society and have such unlimited access to resources due to the ways of the modern world. King’s work makes you feel in danger and that someone like Brady Hartsfield (Harry Treadaway) can not only hurt you but that they might even be borderline invincible. Then, King slowly strips power away from Brady as Hodges begins to experience an epiphany. It’s a great balancing act to watch unfold but here in the television show it’s mostly all reduced to, “Psycho is angry so cop better catch him!”
This adaptation of Mr. Mercedes’ biggest drawback is how mean-spirited it chooses to be. In King’s novel, Brady is clearly deranged, but it’s almost in more of a broken supervillain sort of way. Executive producers David E. Kelley and Jack Bender never really crack the code of who Brady is. This is such a frustrating prospect because Brady is one of King’s most terrifying antagonists and he’s so much more than just some clichéd terrorist. This series reduces him into some sort of angsty millennial. It’s exactly the sort of interpretation of his character that would make the Brady from King’s novels all the more irate and hungry for revenge.
On the positive side of things, Treadaway’s performance as Brady is probably the highlight of the series. There are moments where Treadaway manages to tap into Brady’s truly psychotic side and they are a delight (although it’s hard to not wonder what Anton Yelchin would have brought to the role, before his untimely passing). Watching Brady masquerading in his human costume as the ice cream man is genuinely unnerving and the exhilaration that he feels when he achieves his first “traffic light kill” is very real. The messed up material between Brady and his mother (Kelly Lynch) is also on point. The show doesn’t hold back at all in this regard, leaning into the uncomfortable area hard. That being said, the show gets across the hate that Brady feels for his mother, but never the love that he feels towards her. It simplifies Brady’s relationship with his dead brother in the same sort of way, which are fundamental building blocks for the character.
In a similar sense on the opposite end of the spectrum, the show effectively illustrates Hodges’ fatigue and the aimless slump that he’s in, but it doesn’t tap into the re-awakening he experiences and how beautiful it is to see that this old dog isn’t actually out of the game just yet. Moments like Hodges getting a silly fedora are cute and character building in King’s novel but in this show they read like jokes at Hodges’ expense. “Look at how out of touch he’s become! “ The audience needs to be rooting with Hodges, not laughing at him. These two crucial points of view are instrumental to Mr. Mercedes working, with it otherwise just being some sort of crime story with a tech background. What’s exciting about that? The audience should be pumped to see Hodges getting out of his rut and kicking some ass and that’s not what’s happening in this show.
While broad takes on the central cast is certainly an issue, characters like Hodges’ elderly, lonely neighbor, Ida Silver (Holland Taylor) or Brady’s boss, Anthony Frobisher (Robert Stanton) are given far too much screen time. They’re turned into bigger presences than they need to be when more than enough is already going on. In fact, Brady’s place of work, Discount Electronix, is given too much attention in general. The place becomes de-mystified by the time Hodges stumbles across it later with it not feeling like nearly as much of a revelation. This is all particularly confusing when there’s already more than enough story to clip through without adding new material. The series prioritizes its time in frustrating ways, which leaves the interactions between Hodges and Brady not having nearly the same electricity that they do in the novel. Maybe this dynamic will improve in the second half of the season, but cat-and-mouse narratives of this nature thrive on tension and chaos and it’s just not there to the right degree.
In the case of most episodes, it feels like most of Mr. Mercedes’ charm and quirkiness is sucked out in favor of more broody nihilism. This isn’t always necessarily a bad thing, especially for a show that’s delving into the territory that this one is, but as a result, other elements like Hodges and Jerome’s (Jharrel Jerome) relationship are left feeling flat. Their chemistry reads like an out of touch older guy needing a college kid to help him with computers. There’s such a nuanced, respectful relationship that’s created in the books. It’s worth mentioning that a major aspect of this source material is how the quirky Holly Gibney (Justine Lupe) fits into the unusual working relationship that Hodges and Jerome have found themselves in. Holly doesn’t show up until the second half of the season, but hopefully, her presence will manage to kickstart a lot of the book’s heart.
It’s fair to say that having to remove pivotal scenes from the source material is par for the course when adapting a novel into a film, but not when it’s a television show. Sure, a movie needs to be condensed, but 10 hours could actually allow this text to breathe and grow. This could have been expanded in beautiful ways, but in the end, it feels like David E. Kelley is missing all the reasons that this story is so special in the first place. With this show’s strong, addictive storyline being handled so sloppily, I’m almost relieved that the series may not be around long enough to get to the admittedly bonkers supernatural material that King’s trilogy eventually embraces. Mr. Mercedes is full of such rich characters that I was excited to learn that the novel is actually part of a trilogy. King makes you hungry for more adventures involving Bill Hodges and his group of misfit toys. However, none of the characters in this show, let alone Hodges, are people that I’m hungry to spend more time with.
In spite of the series’ many missteps, moments do still connect and Hodges’ hunt for Brady is ultimately still entertaining, it could just be so much more. There’s certainly some enjoyment and surprises to be had here, just don’t expect for it to be appointment television. While it’s entirely possible that Mr. Mercedes turns it around in its final lap, the series is a drunken drive without brakes that need to be immediately taken off the road to be serviced.
Once again, just read the books. Here’s a link.
‘Mr. Mercedes’ premieres on August 9th at 8pm on the Audience Network (DirecTV)
This review is based on the first four episodes of ‘Mr. Mercedes’