TV TATTLE

Apple TV+'s The Mosquito Coast feels like an utterly derivative successor to Breaking Bad and Ozark

  • "Allie Fox, the main character in Paul Theroux's 1981 novel The Mosquito Coast, has soured on the American Dream — particularly what he sees as a culture of waste and conspicuous consumption, of exploited laborers and trash heaps piled high with the latest in disposable technology," says Daniel Fienberg. "In the current TV adaptation of Theroux's book, Allie is played by the author's nephew, Justin Theroux, and the character has an added streak of techno-paranoia; his rants about the evils of capitalism are infused with a fear of the surveillance state. Allie would probably hate being on Apple TV+, the entertainment arm of a company responsible for phones and computers that are near-obsolete the second they leave the box and a corporation in possession of more data on its customers than perhaps any other in human history. And I'm not sure Allie would be overjoyed that the new Apple TV+ adaptation of Mosquito Coast has buried much of the character's self-aggrandizing ideology like so many iPods filling so many landfills. A father whose professed desire to protect his family at any cost develops into a dangerous obsession, Allie was always a predecessor to Peak TV anti-heroes like Walter White and Marty Byrde. In the hands of Luther creator Neil Cross, The Mosquito Coast has indeed become an entertaining but utterly derivative successor to Breaking Bad and Ozark. It’s also a show whose very existence is itself a cautionary tale — mirroring the themes the story tackles — about how the American marketplace reshapes anything with a maverick spirit into a more commercially recognizable form. The seven-episode first season doesn't exactly even get audiences to the title location, nor is it exactly a prequel."

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    • The Mosquito Coast's stretched-out first season would've been better off as a movie-length: "In theory, elongating the trip to the place that gives The Mosquito Coast its title can have benefits, like offering a deeper understanding of the four main characters and the messy dynamics of their family," says Alan Sepinwall. "But the pilot does too good a job of establishing everyone and how they get along for that to make sense. You only need one glimpse at the dewy gaze Charlie casts upon Allie to understand the degree of hero worship the kid feels for his father, for instance. And an early scene where Allie makes Margot join in on retelling the story of how they met to a frustrated Dina speaks volumes about how much oxygen Allie consumes in any room he enters. As Dina tells him early in the second episode, 'We’re not your family, Dad! We’re your audience!' Mostly, the season has Allie dragging the family through narrative quicksand, where each attempt to escape their latest predicament only sinks them in deeper. Some of these incidents, like a confrontation between the family and a group of border-patrolling vigilantes, are incredibly tense, but others seem obligatory. Allie tends to solve each problem in front of him using his improvised genius with machines, and the storytelling as a whole can’t help feeling mechanical, and built solely for the purpose of complicating itself. This is exhausting after a while, especially when presented with as little joy as Cross and his collaborators care to offer. Even superficially colorful characters like an unyielding Mexican drug cartel boss (Ofelia Medina) or her implacable American-born hitman (British actor Ian Hart in cowboy drag) are played with the utmost seriousness."
    • What’s surprising about The Mosquito Coast is how disposable it feels: "Theroux, among the executive producers as well as a star, is working to adapt a novel of the same title by his uncle Paul Theroux; that novel previously was source material for a 1986 Peter Weir film that has many flaws but a clear understanding of Allie Fox’s character," says Daniel D'Addario. "Perhaps too clear an understanding: As played by Harrison Ford, that film’s Allie Fox came not merely to define but to overpower the movie. As if in response, this Mosquito Coast de-centers Allie and amps up the proportion of the story that’s about sketchily drawn and limply unbelievable violence and conspiracy. Increasingly from the story’s margins, Allie protests a culture that is, perhaps, the only one that could have made this series. Consider the way Allie and his family end up in Mexico: They’re on the run from police after Allie’s daughter Dina (Logan Polish) frees him from custody in a feat of risky creative ingenuity that belies her young age. A stretchy and elastic creative universe can be a lot of fun, but this is the first of several daring bits of trickery executed by a family of Alias-level escape artists, and the air begins to seep out of the show as it becomes clear that the show’s imagination extends precisely as far as making their time on the lam seem exotic, rather than for a moment real."
    • The main problem, and it's a big one, is that there's really nobody here to like or root for: "Certainly not Theroux's Fox, who drags his teenage kids (Logan Polish, Gabriel Batemen) into perilous situations, or his wife Margot (Melissa George), who, for all her pained expressions, is more than a little complicit in the ordeal," says Brian Lowry. "Nor are the kids themselves terribly sympathetic, though the cruelty of their plight feels magnified by the 21st-century setting, depriving them of items like cellphones, and making Allie's control over them feel more unhinged in a doomsday prepper kind of way. When the federal agent (Kimberly Elise) tracking them asks the daughter, 'Why is he making you live the way you do?,' it's a question that hangs unhelpfully over the whole exercise."
    • The Mosquito Coast feels more like it wants to be the next Breaking Bad instead of reimagine Paul Theroux's book: "More like Breaking Worst," says Kimberly Ricci. "I know: worst joke ever, but the reason why this show chose that direction is confusing, considering that star Justin Theroux is the nephew of Paul Theroux, so presumably, this series was a labor of love. Both are executive producing, too, so they must have wanted the pseudo-Walter White thing to happen. Unfortunately, the show omits the element that made Heisenberg compelling and downright irresistible: Walt began as a character that viewers could identify with. Never, even for a moment, is Justin Theroux’s Allie Fox someone that people can relate to or feel sympathy for or even comprehend, especially since his ultimate cause remains a mystery. So, it’s hard to care about Allie at all. In fact, it’s very easy to despise him."
    • The Mosquito Coast departs from the book in the worst ways: "The current seven-episode season has been described as a prequel, but it’s really a substantial, substantive rewrite of the first quarter of the book, by weight, introducing different characters and new motivations, which in the seasons clearly meant to follow will lead to something that will or will not resemble the book’s ensuing chapters," says Robert Lloyd. "(Paul Theroux is an executive producer of the series, as is his nephew; presumably he is fine with the changes. Still, it’s as if someone decided The Catcher in the Rye might be improved by some chase scenes, a gun battle and a jailbreak, and that Holden Caulfield would be a more compelling character if he knew how to use a Coke can to get out of handcuffs.)"
    • Where The Mosquito Coast succeeds unequivocally is proving Justin Theroux as a top-tier lead: "In many roles, the real-life fashion enthusiast will disappear into his character’s wardrobe, wig, or specially honed ticks, showing off his range by transforming into a whole other person. Here, there’s nothing to hide behind," says Ben Travers. "Allie doesn’t have an accent or distinguishing features. He dresses like a maintenance man, whether he’s on the job or not, and other than a pair of granny glasses (complete with a neck strap), he’s typically moving through life unencumbered. But much like The Leftovers, Theroux doesn’t seem lost without his props. He’s stronger, his presence more concentrated, and his constructed traits readily identifiable. When he launches into a monologue about consumerism or lights up over an invention, the actor manifests electricity with just his eyes, channeling a mad scientist without the manic, cackling associations. When he’s surprised, scared, or excited (sometimes all at once), his reactions are so naturally layered you’re drawn in further, hoping to understand which side of Allie will win out in this moment and the next."
    • The Mosquito Coast's first season feels like a busy preamble to the real story: "When a show puts its main characters in grave danger once, maybe twice, well, it can work as an exploration of how they cope with possible death," says Matthew Gilbert. "But when a show is built around the repeated close escapes of the main characters, when viewers are asked to pretend that these people could die again and again when we know deep down they won’t, it can be more exhausting than engaging. What’s worse, each near miss has to have increasingly higher stakes, in order to be more thrilling than the previous one. Can they possibly survive THIS one? Unfortunately, Apple TV+’s new series adaptation of Paul Theroux’s 1981 novel The Mosquito Coast and Peter Weir’s 1986 movie gets caught up in that kind of mishegas early on. What was more powerful as a character study of a man obsessed, one who drags his family into serious danger because of his extreme views against American consumerism, has been restyled into an action-adventure tale. Instead of a look into the impossible relationship between noble ideals and the world that we actually live in, the Apple TV+ version is more of a mechanical genre piece, a suspense escalator."
    • The Apple TV+ series barely has anything to do with the book: "In the hands of the writer and producer Neil Cross, best known for the cult-favorite British cop show Luther, this Mosquito Coast is a new beast entirely," says Mike Hale. "What began life as an allegorical adventure-fantasy about American exceptionalism and decline — and stayed that way in the 1986 film starring Harrison Ford — is now an action thriller of the slowly unfolding, tastefully photographed variety. The story, through the first season’s seven episodes, is a Mexico-set narco-noir in the foreground and a deep-state American conspiracy puzzler in the background, closer in spirit to Robert Stone than to Paul Theroux. The biggest change is in Allie. Instead of the charismatic, cranky and increasingly crazy visionary who voluntarily uproots his family in search of a paradise in the Honduran jungle, we get something more TV-ordinary — a mystery man, hiding from the government, whose past remains murky (facilitating possible future seasons). Forced to flee the country with his wife and two teenage children, this new Allie exhibits can-do MacGyver-like practical skills, though they are significantly reduced from the book, as are his ruthlessness and his propensity for 'the world is going to hell' rants. As played, with an affable low-key intensity, by Justin Theroux, he has the affect of a slightly sociopathic soccer dad."
    • The Mosquito Coast is filled with unpleasant wisdom, delivered with the panache of a one-damned-thing-after-another adventure: "Despite its undeniable quality, The Mosquito Coast might have trouble finding a wide audience, for a couple of reasons," says Matt Zoller Seitz. "First, this new Apple TV+ saga of a brilliant, resourceful, charming, but borderline megalomaniacal inventor named Allie Fox (Justin Theroux) living off the grid with his family is an antihero-driven production, characteristic of prestige TV from ten or more years ago: Imagine if the Whites on Breaking Bad had to go on the run. Second, and perhaps more important, is the PTSD trigger effect: When you watch The Mosquito Coast, you’re watching the improvised misadventures of a charismatic but unhinged patriarch who keeps getting the people he’s sworn to care for into trouble; avoiding exposure, capture, or death through a mix of audacity, low cunning, and dumb luck; then blowing up the family’s equilibrium again. Rinse, repeat. Audiences lived through this TV series for four-plus years in real life, with tragic consequences, including a half-million unnecessary plague deaths. The Mosquito Coast sometimes feels like an analysis-in-metaphor of the most recent era in history, as well as of the emotional mechanics of cults in general, wherein reflexive tribal loyalty trumps skepticism and rational self-interest. It’s about how we got here, and how we always get here."
    • The Mosquito Coast is a hollow drama with strong performances: "Much like its apathetic protagonist Allie Fox (Justin Theroux), Apple TV+ drama The Mosquito Coast is often vain because it doesn’t have the substance to back up its prestige," says Saloni Gajjar. "The thriller is beautifully shot and performed, but in terms of meaningful content or stories, it rings hollow. The series is loosely inspired by Paul Theroux’s (yes, Justin’s uncle) 1981 novel of the same name, but it distinctly veers away from its source material. In the book, disgusted by American capitalism and culture, Allie strives to move his family to Central America’s eponymous Mosquito Coast. The show’s Allie is also a conceited, genius inventor who forces his wife and kids to escape, this time to Mexico, because the government is after him. The Mosquito Coast is only interested in following their arduous journey without ever really divulging any insights into the actions of Allie and his wife Margot (Melissa George). The creative choice to provide little to no backstory severely dulls the show’s impact. The Mosquito Coast remains just a surface-level, sepia-toned thriller about a family on the run, mostly to coax the vanity of its patriarch."
    • Even Justin Theroux's absorbing performance can’t make The Mosquito Coast make sense: "The show only has one tension: whether Allie can keep up his illusions for another day," says Sonia Saraiya. "Other questions, such as whether his ideology makes sense or if he is a good father and partner, are gestured at but ultimately ignored. This is frustrating, because those questions were a lot more important to me than the smoke and mirrors show that is the Allie Fox Hand-Waving Experience—which results in several dead bodies and two young teens exposed to life-altering trauma. Perhaps it would be worth examining his actions in the context of his beliefs, but here, too, it’s striking how little the show has to say. Ostensibly, Allie’s feelings about America and capitalism are what began this journey. But Mosquito Coast refrains from either disagreeing with him or letting him foment his radicalism. Instead he’s just unpredictable, domineering, and egocentric, an awful person to be stuck with for any length of time, let alone one’s entire life. And even here—on this fairly basic question of 'does your protagonist suck'—Mosquito Coast doesn’t have an opinion. It has scenery; it has boats; it has people running around with guns. (No mosquitoes, though, and only one coast, which I thought was a little bit of a letdown.) But it leaves the essential question of the central character open to debate."
    • The Mosquito Coast is a muddled meditation on American life, despite Justin Theroux's great performance: "This is a series that’s always tantalizing viewers with glimpses of profundity—in its political commentary, its plot complexity, its character development," says Judy Berman. "But only in Theroux’s performance does The Mosquito Coast transcend the superficial. During his anti-society soapbox rants Allie can come across as a raving loon of the most dangerous sort, yet in this rendering he’s also charming and brainy enough to suggest why Margot didn’t just grab the kids and run years ago. He’s more than a standard TV narcissist, however; he rarely falls apart when anyone questions him, and is in fact at his gentlest and most patient after someone, usually Dina, betrays him. And he seems to sincerely believe he loves his family, even if he thinks too highly of his own intelligence to value their perspectives on technology or consumerism or whether it’s a good idea to plunder the belongings of a bunch of migrant corpses they stumble upon in the desert."
    • Justin Theroux lobbied to star in The Mosquito Coast after hearing about it: "I didn't have any hand in the way it was going to be treated," he says. "It was, frankly, off my radar. I didn't even know it was happening. I wish I had the idea myself. In my mind, it was a book that was made into a movie and there's no real point in remaking a movie because remakes of movies don't go as well as expected. It had been done. And then I heard that Apple and my uncle were mounting this as a television show, and I thought, hey, I'm right here. In a more formal way I reached out to Neil Cross, who is our writer and showrunner, and said, 'Hey, I would love read the script,' and I read the script. And then I met with him and we sort of fell in love. The rest is kind of history. I'd love to say this is something me and him cooked up and brought to Apple, and said, 'Let's make a TV show.' Neil really did the hard work of giving it a reason for existing now and creating changes that are going to propel us through the series."

    TOPICS: The Mosquito Coast, Apple TV+, Justin Theroux, Melissa George, Neil Cross, Paul Theroux




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