'Mr. Mercedes': A high-speed Stephen King adaptation

Ken Tucker
Critic-at-Large
Kelly Lynch and Harry Treadaway in “Mr. Mercedes.” (Photo: Audience)

In the opening moments of Mr. Mercedes, a madman drives a car — a Mercedes — into a crowd of people, killing some and injuring many others. Cut to two years later, and the Ohio cop who was investigating that crime, Bill Hodges (Brendan Gleeson), is retired but still obsessed with the unsolved case: Who and where is the killer now known as Mr. Mercedes? The TV adaptation of Stephen King’s bestseller, airing on the Audience network, has been performed by David E. Kelley — yes, the man who gave you Ally McBeal and the HBO version of Big Little Lies. I’ve never been a huge fan of Kelley’s original creations (Picket Fences? Boston Legal? No thank you), but after Lies and now Mr. Mercedes, I’d say Kelley has found a better calling as an adapter of other people’s work.

In Mercedes, the killer’s identity is revealed to viewers early on: We know he’s Brady Hartsfield (Harry Treadaway, so good in Showtime’s Penny Dreadful), a young man who’s a tech whiz who works at a depressing electronics shop. He lives with his mom, with whom he shares an unusually close relationship, and Kelly Lynch is so fine in the mother role that she does a lot to make this icky dynamic less icky and sadly believable.

Scott Lawrence and Brendan Gleeson in “Mr. Mercedes.” (Photo: Audience)

King has called Mr. Mercedes his first hard-boiled detective novel, and he brings to the genre a typical originality: Hodges is fat and depressed, cranky and lonely — he stumps around his dowdy-middle-class neighborhood like a lost soul. He has a next-door neighbor, played by Holland Taylor, who offers him a bit of senior-citizen sex, and the coot responds ungratefully. When Hodges heaves his bulk into his old precinct house, you notice the cops fleeing for the far corners of the office — Hodges is the kind of retiree who gives retirement a bad name. This makes him, of course, just the right kind of guy to pursue an unsolved crime. He’s got lots of time on his hands, and the kid who cuts his lawn (Jharrel Jerome) just happens to be a future Harvard student and a brainiac with computers who’s invaluable in helping old Bill when Mr. Mercedes starts sending Hodges taunting messages through the ex-cop’s virus-infected laptop.

One flaw in this show — I’ve seen four of its 10 episodes — is the alteration of a character from the book. Kelley has made Janey Patterson, as played by Mary-Louise Parker, into a romantic interest for Hodges. This fix is not only needless — that’s one reason Taylor’s Ida exists, as she did in King’s novel: to provide Hodges with some intimate comfort — but it seems both less believable (so much is made of Hodges’ slobby demeanor, and we’re supposed to think Parker is turned on by him?) and runs counter to what would have been a refreshing-for-TV subplot about sex and the senior set.

Putting that aside, Mr. Mercedes is awfully good. King always gives you a good story, and as the TV years go by, you realize how few television series feature working- or lower-middle-class people as their protagonists; these are Stephen King’s people — he makes them varied and vivid. David E. Kelley has picked up on this and foregrounded the class imperatives in Mr. Mercedes, while never forgetting that his primary purpose is to supply you with a lot of King shocks and suspense. Also? Good use of T Bone Burnett music as the series’ theme song.

Mr. Mercedes airs on the Audience Network.

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