Though it could use a good polish, strong performances by a talented cast help Mr. Mercedes overcome some minor pacing issues, making for one good Stephen King adaptation this month.
Stephen King has proven himself to be a writing machine, and whenever he has a hit a bidding war quickly starts for its rights (this year alone we also have new adaptations of The Mist, The Dark Tower, It and Gerald’s Game). While film adaptations tend to get developed by major film studios, television adaptations have been getting picked up by smaller networks, with The Mist airing on Spike TV and Mr. Mercedes, which premieres tonight, airing on AT&T’s Audience Network. The network has managed to put together an incredibly talented team for the adaptation of Mr. Mercedes. Television mastermind David E. Kelley (Ally McBeal, The Practice, Big Little Lies) has developed the series and acts as showrunner while Jack Bender (Lost, Game of Thrones) has come aboard as many of the episodes’ director (he directed three of the first four episodes). They also serve as executive producers, along with Stephen King himself. That is all well and good, but great talent doesn’t always guarantee quality (my colleague Daniel Kurland has a different opinion about Mr. Mercedes than I do). So how is Mr Mercedes? Pretty good, actually.
In case you haven’t read King’s exceptional novel upon which this series is based, Mr. Mercedes centers around a psychotic young man named Brady Hartsfield (Harry Treadaway, Honeymoon, Penny Dreadful) who drives a stolen Mercedes Benz through a crowd of people standing in line at a job fair one early morning in 2009. Two years later, after spending months taunting the owner of the Mercedes with threatening emails and letters and eventually driving her to suicide, Brady begins using the same tactic on Bill Hodges (Brendan Gleeson, In Bruges, Lake Placid), the police detective who wasn’t able to catch him. Now retired and a drunk, Hodges finds a new purpose in life after receiving Brady’s threats and, with the help of his teenage friend Jerome (Jharrel Jerome, Moonlight) and the Janey Patterson (Mary-Louise Parker, Weeds, Angels in America, Fried Green Tomatoes), the sister of the Benz’s deceased owner, re-opens the investigation.
It is no spoiler to reveal that Brady is the murderer, as this story isn’t a whodunit. The pilot, just like King’s novel, makes his identity known early on, and chooses to be more of a character study than an outright horror show. In fact, with the exception of the horrific opening scene (which plays out almost exactly as it did in the novel, crushed infant and all) viewers may not immediately recognize Mr. Mercedes as a Stephen King adaptation, but his fingerprints are all over the thing. They are especially apparent in the case of Brady Hartsfield. Described as slightly “off “by his boss (if he only knew), Brady spends his nights holed up in his basement avoiding the flirtatious eye of his mother (Kelly Lynch, Cocktail, Roadhouse, Charlie’s Angels). By day he works at he works at Supreme Electronix, a Radio Shack-like store with his outspoken coworker Lou (Breeda Wool, UnREAL) and moonlights as the neighborhood ice cream man, where is keeps an eye on Detective Hodges.
Gleeson seems to be having a blast as the cantankerous Hodges. Once a highly-respected police detective, he now spends his days at home drinking and feeding his pet tortoise. It’s a miserable existence for the man, yet Gleeson somehow manages to make this man’s misery entertaining. A seasoned actor, Gleeson is right at home as Hodges. Treadaway, on the other hand, has the far more difficult task of playing the psychotic Brady. It’s a bit surreal to watch his performance considering that Anton Yelchin, who tragically passed away last year, was originally cast in the role. You watch Treadaway’s performance wondering what Yelchin would have done with the part, but Treadaway is more than up to the challenge posed to him. His Brady is practically lifted from King’s novel (albeit without the internal racist monologues) and Treadaway is effectively creepy in the role.
While Gleeson and Treadaway are clearly the stars of the show, it is surprisingly the women who shine the most in their more limited screen time. Parker is a spitfire as Janey, a woman determined to find the man who drove her sister to suicide. Her feistiness provides a much-needed foil for Gleeson’s somber detective. These are two people who have been left broken by Brady’s actions, and watching them come together (in more ways than one) to bring him down is a treat. Wool, meanwhile, reminds us why she was many a viewer’s favorite (well, my favorite) character the first season of UnREAL. Lou gives the show an injection of heart, which proves necessary when dealing with such a dark premise. You won’t learn much about her in the show’s first four episodes, but you’ll want to. Equally captivating is Holland Taylor’s Ida, a minor character in the book given much more to do here. As Hodges’ coquettish neighbor, Taylor steals nearly every scene she is in. This should come as no surprise to anyone who has followed her carer over the past few decades (I’m a sucker for her performances in The Practice, Legally Blonde and George of the Jungle myself). That being said her scenes with Gleeson do feel like they are part of an entirely different show. It’s a bit jarring to go from serial killer-chasing with Bill and Brady to romantic comedy with Bill and Ida. Truthfully, the character could have been removed from the show and it might improve the pacing (more on that in a bit). Whether Mr. Mercedes will make Ida more relevant to the overall plot of the season remains to be seen, but at least she’s entertaining to watch.
King’s novel was a page-turner through and through, but the adaptation decides to take a slower approach to the source material, fleshing out more characters and adding in a few more subplots. That is to be expected when turning a 350-page novel into a 10-hour television season, but it does produce some pacing issues in the early episodes. The show probably would have done better with an 8-episode season. The aforementioned massacre that takes place during the prologue would have you believe that the series would be as much of a binge-worthy show as the novel is a page-turner, but that’s not exactly the case. Mr. Mercedes takes its sweet time, which may be frustrating for more impatient viewers. After all, what’s the draw when you already know who the killer is? The characters are. The talented cast makes these characters worth watching, and even though the narrative may move along at a snail’s pace at times, Mr. Mercedes is never boring.
Mr. Mercedes could use a bit of polish, but after the supposed disappointment that is The Dark Tower (I say “supposed” because I’ve yet to see it), it is a welcome addition to the long list of Stephen King adaptations. It is good, but not great. The potential is definitely there, and with three books in King’s series, there is plenty of material to mine from. Let’s just hope it is successful because I can’t wait to see what they do with that third book.