Control…Chaos…Darkness: A Preview of Mr. Mercedes by Bev Vincent
Over the past few years, TV series based on the works of Stephen King have taken different approaches with varying degrees of success. One of the best was 11.22.63, which stayed reasonably close to the source material and did not continue past the novel’s conclusion. At the other end of the spectrum was Under the Dome, which started out okay, but struggled as time went on. Rather than film the novel, they decided to stretch it as far as it could go, and it broke.
In the middle ground, there are series inspired by King works that don’t make much use of the source material. Haven ran for five seasons and every episode featured something to remind viewers that this was a King property—because the story itself didn’t have much to do with The Colorado Kid. The Mist is in the same camp. Other than an inexplicable mist settling over a small town and a sinister military project named Arrowhead, the series has nothing to do with King’s novella. The characters are all original to the show, and even the nature of the mist is markedly different than the novella or, indeed, Frank Darabont’s film.
Now, in the midst of a rash of King adaptations in the second half of 2017, we have the TV version of Mr. Mercedes, the winner of the 2015 Edgar Award for best crime/mystery novel. The series launches on August 9th on Audience Network, available to DirecTV and AT&T U-Verse subscribers, or on the streaming service DirecTV NOW.
We expect TV adaptations to be fairly sanitized compared to what filmmakers can get away with in R-rated motion pictures. 11.22.63 did feature some swearing and sensuality, but nothing explicit. The first episode of Mr. Mercedes makes it plain from the get-go that there are no limitations on what they can do. The job-seekers waiting in line at the Bridgton, Ohio Civic Center are joined by a foul-mouthed redneck who utters a hyphenated mash-up curse word I’ve never before heard on regular cable. Then the inciting incident happens, and it is really hard to watch. Forty-five seconds of carnage that spares nothing and leaves little to the imagination.
Enter Detective Bill Hodges, played to utter perfection by multiple award-winning Irish actor Brendan Gleeson, a surly, short-tempered detective who drops f-bombs all over the place. After the incident at the job fair, the premiere jumps ahead (there are no opening credits in this episode) two years to 2011, where we find Bill in forced early retirement after 36 years of distinguished service. He’s not handling it well—he drinks too much, eats too much (and badly), and spends a lot of time in his recliner in front of the television. He’s the archetypical curmudgeon, terrorizing the neighborhood kids. In one amusing scene, some boys playing street hockey invite him to be their fill-in goaltender, because goaltenders are weird, after all.
One interesting addition to the series is Bill’s next door neighbor, Ida Silver, played by Holland Taylor (the mother from Two and a Half Men). She is hilarious—a woman of a certain age with no filters. She snoops through Bill’s garbage (sorting his recyclables, she claims), and shocks him with racy selfies during dinner on her verandah. She has first-hand experience with the hazards of unhappy retirement and has made it her mission to make sure Bill doesn’t suffer the same fate as her late husband (if only to preserve her real estate values, which would plummet if Bill died and went undiscovered for some time). She is frank and direct, which keeps Bill off-stride with her much of the time. Most importantly, she provides Bill a human connection.
Enter Brady Hartsfield (Harry Treadaway), an ambitious, confused and deranged young man (a young Dexter Morgan) who works at Supreme ElectroniX (a Best Buy clone) and drives an ice cream truck to fund his inventions, most of which have nefarious purposes. Treadaway’s Brady is complex: some customers find him weird, but he’s not totally socially inept. The kids who buy ice cream from him aren’t put off by his behavior, for example. His mother Deb (Kelly Lynch) is a broken woman, for reasons that will become apparent in subsequent episodes, and the fact that she drinks all the time is well-known in certain quarters.
Here’s another place where the show demonstrates that they received absolutely no push-back from AT&T: they don’t shy away one iota from the cringe-worthy relationship between Brady and his mother. Brady is clearly conflicted, and does his best to resist temptation, but she is relentless and not the least bit abashed by her above-and-beyond attentions to him.
The manner in which Brady contacts Bill has been updated to include sophisticated technology, which is appropriate given Brady’s mad computer skills. This gives rise to some entertaining video messages that splice together media footage, stills and explicit animations that would be at home in Heavy Metal. Jerome, the Harvard-bound teenager who mows Bill’s lawn when he isn’t doing his SATs, helps the technologically challenged retired detective investigate the source of these messages, and in setting up surveillance cameras. Jerome (played by Moonlight’s Jharrel Jerome) is less idiosyncratic than in the novel, by which I mean he doesn’t revert to jive talk—at least not through the first four episodes.
Another character who shines is Lou Linklatter (Breeda Wool—the character was named Freddi in the novel but here Fred is Bill’s pet tortoise). She’s the redheaded, tattooed lesbian who works with Brady at Supreme ElectroniX. She has attitude to spare: sarcastic, irreverent, flippant, crude and abrasive, and is constantly being reprimanded by their boss, a pompous self-important buffoon played by Robert Stanton, over the way she doesn’t take shit from customers. She and Brady are working in a dead-end job in a city that still hasn’t fully recovered from the economic decline of 2008, so they have to put up with a lot for the sake of a job. Their boss thinks he’s doing them a favor.
The Mercedes killer case is one that Bill couldn’t resolve before he retired, and, as in the novel, Brady’s taunting has the opposite effect to what he intended. Brady thinks Bill is sufficiently depressed that he’s prone to eating his gun, whereas the new information about the long-stagnant case fires Bill up. He’s very much on edge, suffering a form of PTSD and prone to panic attacks. The person taunting him seems to have personal access: he knows the tortoise’s name and other details about Bill’s life. Given the fact that he drinks a lot and keeps a gun beside his desk, Bill is a loose cannon, something his former partner Pete (Scott Lawrence) knows all too well.
Four episodes in, I feel like Mr. Mercedes could well be the best ever made-for-TV adaptation of one of King’s novels, and a contender for one of the best adaptations in general. They are sticking close to the novel, although with nearly 10 hours of screen time available, they are able to expand certain things, all of which work well thus far, and take their time developing the characters. Dennis Lehane (Mystic River, Shutter Island) is part of the creative team and wrote some of the episodes.
I also really dig the incidental music. In the first episode we hear the Kinks, the Ramones (Pet Sematary, of course) and the Impressions, which Bill plays on vinyl and sings along to. A T Bone Burnett song plays over the opening credits in subsequent episodes. The kinds of songs that are matched to Bill and Brady are instructive.
Unlike many recent adaptations, the series resists the temptation to distract viewers with cross-references to other King works (the Ramones song is the only one I noticed so far, other than the occasional 19). They’re presenting this as a straight-up crime novel for television. The production values are high and the cast is, to a person, terrific. Subsequent episodes will introduce Mary-Louise Parker as Janey Patterson, Ann Cusack as Olivia Trelawney and Justine Lupe as Holly Gibney.
The show is a cat-and-mouse game between Bill, who doesn’t know his adversary, and Brady, who does—but the secondary characters have been expanded to make this a bigger stage than was in the novel. There are tentative plans to continue with the sequels, which is welcome news indeed. Presumably the show will be made available on a wider platform (perhaps iTunes or Amazon) after its 10-week run is complete.
 In the novel, the only thing that was Irish was Jerome’s Irish Setter.