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Showtime's American Rust is the rare kind of boondoggle that dooms itself with a dull mystery

  • "In this case, it’s the murder of an ex-cop, inside a mill that’s just one piece of the dilapidated, working-class Pennsylvania environs," says Nick Allen. "Drugs might be involved, it might be related to a former star football player named Billy, or a young man named Isaac who is set to run away from home. None of these threads are particularly interesting, as much as they’re given a heavy gray filter that screams 'prestige TV.' Not even Jeff Daniels and Maura Tierney can make the story all that provocative within its humble demeanor. No offense to the dead man, his own life a piece of different flashbacks that slowly come to the surface of American Rust, but I never cared who killed him. And I didn’t care about finding out." He adds: "This series is rife with hollow but sorrowful characters, their creation little more than a smudgy panorama of American miserabilism. Bleakness becomes not just a cover but its own aesthetic, made all the more suffocating by the heavy handed dialogue that adds a graveness to the gradual, lackluster plotting that will do something like casually throw two characters into a frozen river, in need of some type of thrill. It's also a little maddening that while the show includes so many ideas—rampant, casual drug usage, the care-taking of a parent, strained romantic relationships later in life, unionizing, football, etc.—it's hardly about much of anything."


    • American Rust is no Mare of Easttown: "Both cast famous actors as cops investigating murders in small, working-class Pennsylvania communities where everybody knows everybody," says Judy Berman. "The difference is that Mare highlighted the specificity of its setting and characters, while Rust merely reproduces the grim clichés that abound in prestige-branded portraits of rural America." Berman adds: "It’s not that characters and situations like the ones depicted here don’t exist in real Rust Belt towns. What pushes the show into the same misery-porn territory as Hillbilly Elegy is the impression executive producer, writer and showrunner Dan Futterman (The Looming Tower) creates that every stereotypical horror of rural life is happening to every person in every corner of Buell at all times. Rust doesn’t seem aware that people who are struggling might not feel sad 24 hours a day. Not even Daniels, Tierney and Camp—all great, as usual—can breathe much vitality into these underwritten sadsacks. In one scene, Del describes a hallway as smelling like “the opposite of happiness.” Did the shooting scripts get doused in the same cologne?"
    • American Rust quickly descends into small-town cliché: “American Rust is set on the opposite end of Pennsylvania from Easttown, where Mare solved crimes earlier this year," says Daniel D'Addario. "On that great HBO series, the town seemed to pulse with life and emotion — look past the chewy accents and Wawa sandwiches, and a sense of Easttown emerged through the slump of characters’ shoulders, the way they engaged with one another. On American Rust, though, the title’s rather direct nod to its Rust Belt setting gives the first clue that subtlety is not the order of the day. The plot thrives on contrivance and misunderstanding more often than human emotion, and attempts to draw out what it’s like for characters to live where they do more often seem to end in showy small-town cliché. As police chief Del Harris, Jeff Daniels puts to use a now-familiar skillset. Harris is a portrait of conflicted modern masculinity, and Daniels suffuses him with weariness and frustration at those around him. In the wake of a murder, Harris decides to protect the son (Alex Neustaedter) of his sort-of girlfriend (Maura Tierney), a compromise he takes on with a familiar beleaguered air. Daniels has, in recent years, had a second career of sorts playing variations on Will McAvoy. His character on HBO’s The Newsroom, which aired from 2012 to 2014, existed in a perpetual state of puffed-up indignation over American decline. His every utterance was an appeal to higher virtues that, thanks to the character’s superior air, ended up not feeling very appealing at all. His being contracted to play James Comey in Showtime’s The Comey Rule came as little surprise, relying as it did on Daniels’ facility with aggrievement at moral lessers in service of a higher truth. Daniels’ recent characters have a certainty that they’re doing the right thing, carried across with an irritating, and irritated, impatience that every other character isn’t on board."
    • All of American Rust's prestige trappings can’t save it from its fundamental, fatal flaw: It’s hopelessly boring: "What could have been a propulsive murder mystery or a cogent conversation about social issues ends up a snail crawl through a generic town populated by characters whose personalities range from glum to glummer," says Angie Han. "It’s not that the actors don’t try. Daniels does sturdy work as Del Harris, the local police chief whose conflicting loyalties — the deceased person at the center of the case was once a cop — make him either the best or worst person to find out what really happened. He’s the ideal actor to deliver a tragic backstory monologue, keeping his face and voice steady in a way that makes the words tumbling out of his mouth even more heartbreaking — which is perhaps why, in two of the three episodes given to critics for review, he gets two such speeches. He’s at his most appealing in scenes with Del’s sometimes girlfriend, a seamstress named Grace played by Tierney with low-key sweetness and an appropriate level of world-weary resignation."
    • Even Maura Tierney can't save American Rust: "Maura Tierney brings all kinds of Maura Tierney energy to Showtime’s American Rust," says Matthew Gilbert. "She plays Grace Poe, a seamstress in a Pennsylvania steel town who’s struggling to get her workmates’ support to unionize their shop. She’s indefatigable when it comes to getting signatures, just as she is about launching her self-sabotaging twenty-something son and working to get her lover, Jeff Daniels’s police chief Del Harris, to open up. Tierney’s intensity is enterprising, playful, neurotic, sardonic, overtired, and always, always dynamic. When her Grace is in a room, the ions start shifting. But Tierney is a lightning bug in the bleak black night that is American Rust, an eight-part miniseries based on the 2009 novel by Philipp Meyer. She’s passionate and focused, and a pleasure to watch, but everything and everyone around her is murky, dreary, monotonous. That vibe is, it seems, intentional — at times it’s even rather forced down our throats — by writer-producer Dan Futterman, since this is a story about, you know, the dissolution of the American Dream. At every chance it gets, American Rust makes it loud and clear that Buell — where money is scarce, except when it comes to buying drugs — is a suffocating industrial town slowly turning to rust, the place where visions of middle class comfort come to die. The first three episodes of the miniseries that were sent for review are so relentlessly downbeat, so lacking in urgency, so drained of possibility, it’s hard to care about anything or anyone in them."
    • American Rust is a fine show for what it wants to be — a bleak series based on a bleak Philipp Meyer novel that — like Mare of Easttown — is very detailed about its bleakness: "There’s a rusty pick-up truck in nearly every frame! Unfortunately, while it is suitably heavy, it’s not yet as engrossing," says Dustin Rowles. "There’s no plight here that we feel particularly invested in after one episode, while the murder mystery itself lacks a compelling hook. But oh boy, I can already tell Rust is going to deliver a number of sermons on the economically disadvantaged, on those the American economy has left behind, and those who have been exploited by the pharmaceutical industry. That just so happens to be my particular cup of tea, which means I’ll wallow in it until the bitter end, although I understand that this kind of series is not for everyone. There are far less painful ways to pass the time."
    • American Rust thankfully isn’t acting as a window into Trump’s America: Written before the 2016 election, "Futterman’s scripts go out of their way to avoid political discourse in favor of practical, issue-based queries (even if they also dip into TROT territory — making a villain so enthusiastically bigoted that anyone not spouting racial epithets comes across clean)," says Ben Travers. "In one way or another, every character is trapped; some are reliant on medication, which they can only afford if they keep their job or the government protects their benefits; others are tied down by loyalty, whether it’s misplaced or foundational. Yet the town has clearly been passed over, with its creaking, ramshackle structures, homes being sold out from under their owners, and wide swaths of uninhabited space. Futterman, the credited writer and showrunner, paints a painful juxtaposition: Buell is filled with natural life that promises possibility — the arching hillsides, quiet rivers, even the barren trees outside Del’s house, where he goes hunting whenever he damn well feels like it, can be seen as dormant rather than dead. But the businesses, the buildings, the bones set in place by its citizens — they’re cracking, if not fully broken down. After a lengthy downward trajectory that’s hastened by job loss and addiction and the recent murder, is this just a place where people die? Or might life return, if the remaining men could find a healthier path forward? American Rust could stand to clarify its thoughts beyond authenticity, just as it could certainly seek answers with a little more urgency. But there’s something admirable about its measured, deliberate pace. Haste isn’t a part of small town life. There’s no need to hurry when there’s no place to go."
    • Jeff Daniels needs saving from this Rust Belt nightmare: "From the start, only Daniels’ Harris stands out," says Nick Schager. "First introduced crushing, weighing, and consuming his dosage of daily prescription pills, he’s a Gulf War vet and former Pittsburgh detective who’s retreated to this out-of-the-way haven for reasons that aren’t immediately revealed. No matter, though; hints about his deep, dark distress are impossible to miss. Less easy to pin down, however, is his personality. Overseeing a public auction of some homes—including that of his seamstress girlfriend Grace (Maura Tierney) and her loutish husband Virgil (Mark Pellegrino)—that is then interrupted by Virgil and his friends’ arrival with rifles, Harris admits to the auctioneer that this has been a clear case of intimidation. Nonetheless, his offer to have the man safely escorted out of town comes across as both a kind and menacing gesture. That duality is again present when he jokingly picks up a bottle of sparkling wine from a bartender, only to then snap at her when she makes a harmless (if lewd) joke about also selling him condoms. It’s tricky getting an initial beat on Harris. Yet unfortunately, American Rust doesn’t really know what to do with him, and thus winds up sidelining him for long stretches so it can detail the tangled situations of many other Buell residents."
    • Perhaps the time has come for a moratorium on grim murder dramas set in bedraggled small towns: "In case you doubt this, take in an hour or two of American Rust, what with all its sooty interiors and parade of Buell, Pennsylvania's perpetually stricken faces," says Melanie McFarland. "Ruminate upon the inability of Jeff Daniels and Maura Tierney to lighten the slow crush of sadness constricting your brain with each new tragedy presented, be it major or insignificant, and despite their best efforts to create sympathetic, fully rounded personas out of very little. They are acting. Everybody is. But they're also working against a story that ticks all the boxes of working-class despair and then some. Does Tierney's thinly realized single mother have a deadbeat, philandering ex who takes pleasure offering her what might as well be bouquets of chlamydia? You bet. Is there a funeral where 'Amazing Grace' plays – on bagpipes? Why, yes. Does a major character pleasure himself after surreptitiously spying on two strangers slamming bolognas in a dark boxcar? Admittedly, that is an unexpected sight. Still, it all adds up to aimless adversity porn...A closer genetic cousin to Futterman's drama is Mare of Easttown, a phenomenal success that might otherwise lead one to scoff at the suggestion of pulling back on shows like it instead of building more of them. Successful TV always breeds imitators. It's the reason we've been inundated with clones of clones of Tony Soprano for more than two decades, troubling figures whose bones compose the spine of prestige drama."
    • How Maura Tierney got into her American Rust character: "To be honest with you, it was a journey," she says. "How I like to start working is just, 'What’s on the page? What’s in the scene? What is she doing; what does the kitchen look like?' So, it’s not like I make a journal of the character or a history; I try to take the facts and see where my mind goes with that. But throughout the season, you get more and more facts and I came to realize in a way the greatest love story for her is with her son. As we progress, that’s it for her. I think she knows how to love her son — I don’t know if she really knows how to love anyone else in a healthy way — and I started thinking, 'I don’t know if anyone’s loved her or taken care of her.' But all of that grew as we were shooting."
    • Jeff Daniels recognized the characters in American Rust from his childhood growing up in small-town Chelsea, Michigan: “I know these guys,” said Daniels, whose dad was mayor and owner of the lumber yard. “I know what they sound like. I know how they talk. I know how they think. I know how they walk. I live around them. This is their world.” Having been interested in Philipp Meyer's work, Daniels sought to reunite with The Looming Tower's Dan Futterman and Adam Rapp for American Rust. Futterman, the showrunner, recalled the question Daniels asked: “‘If you love it, would you remind me what I love about it?'" Futterman added: “I told him that I loved what felt to me like a central theme of the book and something that I have written about before. Can you both love somebody and use them at the same time?”

    TOPICS: American Rust, Showtime, Adam Rapp, Dan Futterman, Jeff Daniels, Maura Tierney