Tuesday, January 23, 2018
TV and Media

Horror is all too real in Stephen King's 'Mr. Mercedes' TV show

Maybe you're a Stephen King fan who was disappointed by the film version of The Dark Tower and need an antidote. Or maybe you're a fan who loved it and can't wait for more from the horror-fantasy master.

Either way, you're in luck. The new movie version of It hits theaters Sept. 8, and King's 57th novel, Sleeping Beauties, co-written with his son Owen King, publishes Sept. 26.

And, just to maintain King's grip on the entertainment universe, the TV series Mr. Mercedes debuts Wednesday on Audience channel on DirecTV.

It's based on King's excellent 2014 novel of the same name, which won an Edgar Award and led to a trilogy about its main character, retired police detective Bill Hodges.

Mr. Mercedes is on the opposite end of the King fiction spectrum from the Dark Tower books, which are a colossal feat of world-building and mythic fantasy. Mr. Mercedes is resolutely realistic — one of the few King novels without any supernatural elements. That does not keep it from being terrifying.

The first four episodes of the TV series made available for review suggest that it will be just as chilling as the novel. Showrunner David E. Kelley (Boston Legal) has hewed closely to the book, and the 10-episode format allows the story and characters to develop, and the tension to build to a roar.

The series opens, as the book did, with a shocking act of violence. About a decade ago, at the height of the recession, a young man arrives at a community center in a Midwestern city for a job fair at 3 a.m., figuring he'll beat the crowd. Alas, there are hundreds already there, so he gets in line and chats warmly with a young woman carrying her infant daughter (tough to find 3 a.m. babysitters).

The sweet scene is interrupted by a car that pulls into the lot and shines its headlights on the people in line. Someone cracks that it takes some nerve to show up at a job fair in a Mercedes, but before the bitter joke can die in the air, the car accelerates into the crowd.

The attack, graphically portrayed, leaves 16 dead — including that mother and child — and dozens injured. The driver, unidentifiable in a clown mask (first of many King-world Easter eggs), gets away. The battered and bloodied car is found, and it was of course stolen, from Olivia Treadway, a wealthy woman who lives nearby and insists she didn't leave the keys in it.

Cut to the present and to Hodges, one of the lead detectives on the case, now retired. Brendan Gleeson, an Irish actor most recognized as Mad-eye Moody in the Harry Potter movies, is pitch perfect as Hodges. In retirement, his bullish build has deteriorated into flab, his housekeeping is neglectful, and his attitude is ferociously bad. Worst of all, his sharp intelligence and investigative skills have no targets, and he's sinking into depression and alcoholism.

Hodges is divorced and estranged from his adult daughter, but his former partner, Pete (Scott Lawrence), and cheery next-door neighbor, Ida (Holland Taylor), are deeply concerned — which just makes him crankier.

What finally electrifies him out of his funk is a taunting email that appears to be from Mr. Mercedes, as the killer is called, some time after Olivia Treadway commits suicide.

Hodges doesn't know who Mr. Mercedes is, but we do. Brady Hartsfield is a young man with mad hacker skills — "trolling" is too faint a word for the ways he can digitally haunt a victim. He's underemployed at a chain electronics store and moonlighting as an ice cream truck driver (great job for surveillance). He's played with an intensity calculated to make skins crawl by Harry Treadaway (Dr. Frankenstein in Penny Dreadful).

The well-paced, escalating cat-and-mouse game between Hodges and Hartsfield gets a solid background from the rest of the cast, which includes Mary Louise Parker as Janey, Olivia's flirty sister who hires Hodges to investigate her death; Breeda Wool as Lou, Brady's wisecracking colleague and the closest thing he has to a friend; Jharrel Jerome as Jerome, Hodges' teenage neighbor who lends a hand with cracking Brady's hacking; and Kelly Lynch, who pulls off the difficult feat of making us feel sympathy for Brady's slovenly, alcoholic, sexually inappropriate mother.

The effect of King's horror writing is always at its height when it collides with the real world. In the TV version of Mr. Mercedes, as in the book, the real world itself is more than scary enough.

Contact Colette Bancroft at [email protected] or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.

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