In the abstract, most of us would probably say we'd like to live more ethical, environmentally responsible lives. But what sacrifices are we actually willing to make to do it? Would we mooch used cooking oil from restaurants to run our vehicles? Abstain from corporate media? Become a criminal of conscience and, eventually, go on the run, along with our entire families? Most of us would likely start with a compost heap and see how it goes, but Allie Fox is different.
Allie (Justin Theroux) lives in Stockton, California with his wife Margot (Melissa George), teen daughter Dina (Logan Polish), and son Charlie (Gabriel Bateman). He works as a handyman at one of the area's many large agricultural operations, for which he is paid in cash. During his downtime, he's an inventor: he's developed a device that can create ice from fire and is waiting for his patent to be approved. He also keeps a close eye on what his kids are doing, becoming enraged when he discovers that Dina has acquired a cell phone to talk to her boyfriend, and bringing Charlie along on a run for waste oil, during when they attract the notice of a local cop suspicious about why Charlie's not in school. The rejection of Allie's patent is one setback in the series premiere; another is his pursuit by an unmarked vehicle. That's when it becomes clear that Allie's not just an eccentric with firmly held beliefs: he's a fugitive; the authorities have located him and discovered the false identity he's been using; and all the Foxes are going to have to hit the road.
The series is based on the 1981 novel of the same name by Paul Theroux (Justin's uncle), which was previously adapted into a 1986 feature film starring Harrison Ford as Allie and River Phoenix as Charlie. (Both Paul and Justin are also Executive Producers here.) But while the film is a fairly faithful adaptation of the book, the series — which comes from Luther creator Neil Cross — departs from it in several respects that give the story more potential to unspool over a number of seasons. Allie's fugitive status is one; his connection to a cadre of off-the-grid environmentalists (or possibly eco-terrorists) is another.
Over the course of the show's short first season — just seven episodes — the details of Allie's crime are withheld not only from the audience but from his increasingly exhausted and frustrated children. Having been exposed to Allie's anti-capitalist philosophy all their lives, they share it, although not as passionately as he does; the sine wave of Dina's commitment to the cause yanks the family's progress off-course at several pivotal moments. In general, the kids' unpredictability here may be what most reminds you of The Americans, another story in which a stunningly attractive family of four — led by parents whose motives may or may not be as pure as they try to convince themselves they are — attempt to stay ahead of their shadowy pursuers while also mitigating the blowback from their reckless teens' impulsive whims.
In terms of Allie's critiques of the American empire... there's a certain "where is the lie?" to his position. The righteousness of his beliefs combined with the charisma Theroux brings to his characterization go a long way toward convincing the viewer that Allie's intensity would have been irresistible to Margot back when she was a younger woman — and, as we learn fairly early in the series premiere, the daughter of an economically comfortable family. However, it's also clear from the start how much of Allie's crusade is driven by ego and narcissism, causing his family pain he does not acknowledge. Would it be worth it to him to hold fast to his principles if it meant driving them away? Or, rather, will it, since this question is raised in the series premiere, and not for the last time. The fact that all of this is reaching us via one of the world's biggest corporations does, through it all, force the viewer to contemplate in what ways its portrayals of both capitalism and anti-capitalism are compromised.
The heat of Allie's anger and the aridity of his judgment are echoed in the show's photography of the southwestern desert between Arizona and Mexico; it's beautiful and stark. (Some choices are less subtle than others; there's a running motif involving monarch butterflies that lands with a thud.) Once the action moves from the U.S. into (spoiler) Mexico City (as someone who follows Justin Theroux on Instagram for completely professional reasons, I can tell you they shot on location), you may be slightly distracted by how expensive it looks; they're pulling off setups and shots that wouldn't be out of place in an action feature like Man On Fire.
Last fall, HBO's The Undoing gave audiences a miniseries about a respected pediatric oncologist who couldn't possibly be the family annihilator he seemed to be... or could he? The Mosquito Coast presents a different take on a manipulative patriarch — one who appeals not just to his nearest relatives' love for him, but to their intellects, their sense of justice, and the guilt of being American that he has partly inculcated in them, but that they also partly know they probably should feel. It's full of twists and broken with just enough moments of comic relief; stressful yet riveting. It's absolutely a road trip you should take.
The first two episodes of The Mosquito Coast drop on Apple TV+ Friday April 30th. Subsequent episodes wil premiere weekly on Fridays weekly through May.
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Writer, editor, and snack enthusiast Tara Ariano is the co-founder of Television Without Pity and Fametracker (RIP). She co-hosts the podcasts Extra Hot Great and Again With This (a compulsively detailed episode-by-episode breakdown of Beverly Hills, 90210), and has contributed to New York, the New York Times magazine, Vulture, Decider, Salon, and Slate, among many others. She lives in Austin.