TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Tomorrow, a minor TV outlet presents a 10-part drama series that our TV critic David Bianculli says is good enough to be considered a major triumph. It's an adaptation of Stephen King's mystery novel "Mr. Mercedes" and comes from longtime TV writer-producer David E. Kelly. Here's David's review.
DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: With cable networks and streaming services, a reputation can be made or at least launched by a single TV series or two if they're good enough to draw people in for the first time - HBO with "The Larry Sanders Show" and "The Sopranos," FX with "The Shield," AMC with "Mad Men" and "Breaking Bad," Netflix with "House Of Cards" and "Orange Is The New Black," Amazon with "Transparent" and "The Man In The High Castle," Hulu with "The Handmaid's Tale." And now comes a new drama series from what used to be called the DirecTV Audience network and now is owned by AT&T. This new series is called "Mr. Mercedes," and it's billed as an AT&T original available on DirecTV's Audience network and streaming on DirecTV Now and something called the U-verse.
Wherever you can find it, it's worth finding. Even though those provider names may mean nothing to you, the names behind "Mr. Mercedes" should mean a lot. Its executive producers include Stephen King, who wrote the 2014 novel on which the series is based. And David E. Kelly, the creator of "Ally McBeal" and "The Practice" and "Boston Legal," whose recent defection from broadcast to cable TV resulted in HBO's very well-received "Big Little Lies." And the cast of "Mr. Mercedes" is loaded with very strong actors too, from Mary-Louise Parker and Kelly Lynch to the show's stars, Brendan Gleeson and Harry Treadway. Stephen King, best known as an author of horror stories, often does his best when veering away from the supernatural, as in such movies and books as "Stand By Me," "Misery" and "The Shawshank Redemption." "Mr. Mercedes," at least as a standalone character study, is a similar departure.
It's more of a detective story, about a killer who uses his car as a murder weapon. And it's part "Colombo" because we know the identity of the mass murderer from the start. But it's also a cat-and-mouse chess game because the killer, after evading capture for years, begins taunting and haunting the now-retired detective who failed to close the case. First, the killer sends a graphic email showing video of the crime scene, then leaves something on the detective's lawn. It's an escalating war. And after a couple of episodes, the detective agrees to actively engage. What makes this work across the board is the depth of character. In some Stephen King novels, characters can slip more into caricature or stereotype.
But in this TV adaptation of "Mr. Mercedes," time is taken so we get to know and care about almost everyone involved. That includes the victims, whom we get to know in what becomes an intensely frightening and unforgettable opening sequence. It definitely includes the retired detective Bill Hodges, who is played by wonderful Irish actor Brendan Gleeson. Hodges now lives and hides in a suburban neighborhood, where his lawn has gone to seed and so has he. He's a loner with a pet tortoise, which fits because Hodges has no intention of coming out of his shell, either. Not even when his next door neighbor, an attractive widow played by Holland Taylor, is uncomfortably frank and aggressive over dinner on a number of levels.
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HOLLAND TAYLOR: (As Ida Silver) When was the last time you had sex - seriously?
BRENDAN GLEESON: (As Bill Hodges) Are you propositioning me, Ida?
TAYLOR: (As Ida Silver) What if I am? You could do a lot worse.
GLEESON: (As Bill Hodges) That's...
TAYLOR: (As Ida Silver) Not to mention, I live next door. There's something to be said for convenience.
GLEESON: (As Bill Hodges) You got it.
TAYLOR: (As Ida Silver) Hygiene, as well. I'd need you to bathe. Do you?
GLEESON: (As Bill Hodges) You being serious here?
TAYLOR: (As Ida Silver) Face it, Bill. I'm your only option if you don't want to pay for it. You're not an attractive man.
GLEESON: (As Bill Hodges) You're out of your mind.
BIANCULLI: Even the killer is a fully realized character. Played by Harry Treadway, he's a computer whiz who works at an electronics store for a bullying boss and goes home to his locked workroom in the basement, where he plans his crimes and carries out his acts of cyberterrorism. His mom, an alcoholic and incestuous hot mess played by Kelly Lynch, lives there too. And like the mother of Norman Bates in "Psycho," she's part of the reason her son is as warped as he is.
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KELLY LYNCH: (As Deborah Hartsfield) You need a little fun in your life. That's all I'm saying, OK. Why is it you never had a girlfriend? I just don't understand this. Look, I never find fault in you, honey - in fact, just the opposite. You're smart. You're resourceful. And you're good looking. Do you know how good looking you are? I would think the girls would drip off you.
GLEESON: (As Bill Hodges) I got to do work, so.
LYNCH: (As Deborah Hartsfield) No. Wait. Give mommy a little kiss. Can you do that? Give me a little kiss first.
BIANCULLI: "Mr. Mercedes," a 10-episode limited series, draws you in with these characters and conflicts and doesn't let go. David E. Kelly does a lot of the writing here himself. And other scripts are written by such strong writers as Dennis Lehane. The director is Jack Bender, who worked on both "Game Of Thrones" and "Lost." Together, with King, this creative team makes the most of the freedom allowed by this new network platform in terms of language, images and even ideas. David Kelly and Stephen King have been entertaining the masses for many decades now, yet in "Mr. Mercedes," they're both doing some of their best work in years.
GROSS: David Bianculli teaches TV and film at Rowan University and is the author of "The Platinum Age Of Television: From I Love Lucy To The Walking Dead, How TV Became Terrific." Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will be Dr. Jessica Nutik Zitter, a California physician who's grappling with how and when to implement her state's new End of Life Option Act, which allows certain terminally ill patients to receive medical assistance to hasten death. She's both a critical care and palliative care specialist who's often confronted with questions about when and whether to use invasive medical interventions with terminally ill patients. I hope you'll join us.
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GROSS: Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Ann Marie Baldonado, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie and Thea Chaloner. I'm Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF BLACKOUT AND STEFON HARRIS' "UNTIL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.