“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. 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.
Daniels stars in the series as Del, a police chief in the quiet city of Buell that stands far away from the ritz of Pittsburgh, and whose bars function as the community center. He is one piece of the show’s initially interesting idea of drug users, shown crushing and then carefully weighing out his medication in the pilot's opening minutes, rhyming how others use pills and other intoxicants in this community that involves a lot of buildings under conviction. Del roams the town as a type of all-knowing father figure, with his own demons and isolation, and is able to handle the barkeeps as much as the gun-toting men who try to intimidate outsiders. His tone is all Daniels, unbroken stares and sardonic line deliveries, as if the actor's final form is to going to pseudo-Westerns such as this. He can be fun to watch, if even for how his approach to calm authority (this side of "The Newsroom") remains unequaled.
The modern mystery of “American Rust” relates to events from six months ago, which are given extensive detail in the first episode. Del uses his sway as a policeman, as a figure of the community who can sit across from the judge like an old pal, to get the aforementioned Billy a lighter sentence for a brutal assault that nonetheless looks to be in self-defense. Billy’s mother is Grace (Tierney, not given a great deal in the first three episodes provided to press), who is leading unionizing efforts in the town, and finds her emotional attention pulled between Del and her more openly shithead husband. Billy embodies a type of fleeting potential for the people of Buell, having lost his shot to possibly become a football star, and Neustaedter’s performance is one of many huffy, sour pieces to the production.
Billy has a friendship, depicted as a thick fog, with a peer named Isaac (David Alvarez), who watched Billy got into what became the crime scene. Isaac has his own vague history, and current angst with his father Henry English (Bill Camp), and a mother who was found in the nearby lake with rocks in her pockets. His sister Lee (Julia Mayorga) left Buell for the big city, and marriage to a rich guy, but she returns to the city when Isaac disappears toward the end of episode one.
All to say that 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.
The second episode of "American Rust" tries to show the strength of this series from creator Dan Futterman, but it instead becomes more revealing about its flaws and shortcomings. It’s based around a shotgun wedding for the town, and it brings in different figures from the series in capacities, highlighting their relationships in who they spend time with at the party, what they talk about. It’s the type of hang-out episode that most series would save for later in the season, and if “American Rust” were tighter and more rich, going so early would be significant. But the episode's character-based moments, and the bursts of plot that move the mystery forward with a chase and suspect, are handled in such tedious fashion.
All to say that the show adds up to little, even after three episodes that clock in about 55 minutes each. Daniels and Tierney can only do so much with these characters that are a product of the show’s incurious environment and deficient storytelling, playing into grit-less ideas of austere working-class lifestyles. About the nicest thing that can be said about "American Rust," is that it’s easy to watch. But it's even easier to forget about.
Three episodes screened for review. The first episode of "American Rust" premieres on September 12.