Fayette County, Pennsylvania is classic rust belt country. The historical landmarks include an early 1800’s blacksmith forge, a late Eighteenth Century iron foundry, and Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater. Buell Police Chief Del Harris doesn’t have much time to visit any of them. He must investigate the murder of a former officer he fired for incompetence in creator Dan Futterman’s American Rust (based on Philipp Meyer’s novel), which premieres Sunday on Showtime.
Harris is doing his best to maintain law and order, while trying to ween himself off the painkillers he has been hooked on, because of injuries he sustained during the Gulf War and his service on the Pittsburgh PD. He is also trying in an aw-shucks kind of way to pursue a relationship with divorced mom and aspiring labor organizer Grace Poe. Her son Billy Poe is not thrilled with the idea, even though Harris has done him some considerable solids in the past, as we will see from the flashback awkwardly plopped down smack-dab in the middle of the first episode.
Eventually, we understand why Harris did not like what he saw when he was called to a crime scene in a rusted-out factory, besides the dead body. That would be Pete Novick, whom Harris very publicly sacked for being a surly opiate-head.
In terms of themes and tone, American Rust is a lot like Mare of Easttown with more substance addiction and less teen pregnancy (or The World Made Straight with slightly more crime-thriller elements). Based on the three episodes provided for the press, it looks pretty clear Harris will have to deal with one darned thing after another (not unlike Showtime’s Your Honor). However, the series’ primary identity comes from its Middle American miserablism.
Despite the angst, Jeff Daniels is seriously impressive as Harris, dipping into his Broadway Atticus Finch trick bag and adding a bit of House MD for extra edge. His brooding is the stuff of high tragedy. He also has some effective halting rapport with Maura Tierney’s Grace Poe. She truly looks working-class and worn-down by life, while still retaining a lot charismatic vitality.
John Dahl (director of Red Rock West) helms the first two episodes, giving it a noir style that the narrative does not initially live up to. So far, it is spectacularly gritty, but it is also like a lot of other things. Daniels is terrific and he has some nice support, but the depressed milieu really keeps things dour and downbeat. More thrills and suspense will be needed. The results are inconclusive so far, but there are plenty of other shows available that we can recommend without reservations. For those who are intrigued and willing to gamble a little with their time, American Rust starts this Sunday (9/12), on Showtime.