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What Mr. Mercedes understands that most Stephen King adaptations don’t

This incredibly gruesome crime drama is really a heartwarming small-town series at heart.

Mr. Mercedes
A menacing tennis ball provides a key moment for the climax of Mr. Mercedes’ first episode.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Every Sunday, we pick a new episode of the week. It could be good. It could be bad. It will always be interesting. You can read the archives here. The episode of the week for August 13 through 19 is “On Your Mark,” the second episode of AUDIENCE Network’s Mr. Mercedes.

Stephen King’s work is famously tough to adapt on film. For as beloved as his big, sprawling novels are, they can feel a little hokey on screen. The best film made out of one of his books — 1980’s The Shining — is essentially a riff on the ideas in that book, not a direct adaptation. (King famously doesn’t like it much.) The second best film made from one of his books — 1976’s Carrie — is based on one of his few novels so slim it can more or less be directly translated to the screen.

Beyond that, it’s an incredibly mixed bag. There are good and even low-key great adaptations in the mix, but the vast majority are varying degrees of bad. Indeed, Vulture’s recent ranking of every Stephen King film shocked me by placing 2003’s Dreamcatcher — a terrible movie I’ve watched more times than I care to admit — as relatively high as it did. I was even more shocked to realize I didn’t necessarily disagree with the ranking. There are just that many bad King adaptations.

We’re currently experiencing a new renaissance of King-based films, with the recent adaptation of The Dark Tower in theaters and the heavily anticipated film version of IT headed toward us in just a few weeks. But it’s actually a sure-to-be-overlooked new — and pretty darn good — television adaptation that may help explain why King’s best books often make for middling films.

Mr. Mercedes, an adaptation of the 2014 novel of the same name, suggests that King’s work is perhaps better suited to TV than to film. And there’s a simple reason for that: At the heart of most great King books is a small-town story.

TV has dabbled in Stephen King before, with mostly mediocre results

Mr. Mercedes
Stephen King can make even an ice cream truck seem menacing.

Before I argue that King’s work is better suited to TV, it’s probably necessary to acknowledge that TV has adapted King before, and its track record is decidedly mixed. The 2006 TNT anthology series Nightmares & Dreamscapes, which adapted eight different short stories by the author, is perhaps the height of TV King, but as with all anthology series, it’s decidedly hit and miss.

There have been several King miniseries — most of which aired on ABC, but also the recent Hulu adaptation of 11.22.63 — that attempted to capture the epic sprawl of his books in a format that neutered much of what made them so unnerving. These miniseries could show more gore than you might have expected (largely because they were made in the 1980s and ‘90s), but every time they bumped up against something truly dark and terrible, they flinched and looked away.

Almost all of them have their merits. Tim Curry’s performance as the titular monster in IT, for instance, has cemented that miniseries’ reputation as far better than it deserves, while the 1994 version of The Stand comes about as close as any broadcast network adaptation of that massive book could in terms of capturing its desolate horrors. I’m also fond of Storm of the Century, a 1999 miniseries that functions as an extra-extra-large episode of The Twilight Zone and stands as one of few projects King explicitly conceived of as a screenplay. (No novel of the story exists.)

But even in the best TV adaptations of King’s work, there’s a sense of having to overlook weaker qualities to find the good underneath. This is also true of many of King’s books, and the author himself might even admit as much; he writes in the overheated, overpopulated style of 19th century fabulists, kind of like if Charles Dickens had more murderous dogs in his oeuvre. This means he’s rarely defeated by sprawl — some of his best books are some of his messiest. (The Stand comes to mind.)

Because TV is a medium that often turns excess story material into raw fuel to just keep going, it might very well be the best place for King’s work to shine in adaption form. All of those weird tangents and seemingly pointless windows into other pieces of the King universe that can trip up the non-superfan in his heftiest tomes? Those can be the basis for entire episodes of an adapted series. And that only makes for better world-building, which is helpful on TV and especially in small-town shows.

Still, all TV adaptations of King’s work face one major obstacle: TV isn’t especially well-suited for horror. Sure, it can scare you from time to time, and plenty of TV shows have a sort of horror flavoring sprinkled over the top. But good horror requires tension that builds to release, and TV, which tends toward endless runs of dozens or even hundreds of episodes, doesn’t do release all that well. Hence, most King adaptations have been miniseries.

The best horror series on TV have thinly spread a horror façade atop some other genre. The Walking Dead is mostly a Western, while The X-Files is a police procedural. Though they do have monsters, the underlying story structures are TV-friendly, tested and perfected over decades. And I didn’t realize until I watched Mr. Mercedes just what long-running TV genre would best fit King.

Mr. Mercedes is a detective show — but what makes it addictive is its sense of place

Mr. Mercedes
Computers are magic!

On the one hand, Mr. Mercedes would seem to be one of King’s more TV-friendly books, right from the first. It’s about retired detective Bill Hodges (played here by Brendan Gleeson) tracking down the mass murderer who drove a stolen Mercedes into a crowd lined up for a job fair one sleepy morning in a fictional Ohio town. The detective drama is one of TV’s most tried-and-true genres, and only the gruesome portrayal of the murderer’s crime would suggest this particular detective drama as a King adaptation. (As filmed by Jack Bender, the murder is a series of blood-streaked jump cuts; while Bender suggests more than he shows, the flashes of mutilated bodies pack a sickening punch.)

What grabbed me about Mr. Mercedes, however, has almost nothing to do with the central case, which the series treats with slightly more gravitas than it deserves. (When the premiere ends with the reveal that the strange young man viewers have been following in the B-story is the murderer!!!!, I think it’s meant to be a bigger surprise than it actually is.) Mr. Mercedes’ biggest asset is that it brims with a strong sense of place and a collection of quickly drawn but nicely detailed characters, all played by strong actors. In other words, it’s got all the makings of a great small-town series.

The show’s setting and characters are immediately compelling. In its opening scene, writer David E. Kelley neatly sketches in a handful of the people in line for the job fair. Each character has a specific, telling outline: the mother who’s awakened her 2-month-old daughter at four in the morning to stand in line because she can’t afford a sitter. The divorced guy who offers her his sleeping bag to nurse in. The cranky guy who just wants the baby to stop crying.

It’s tricky to imbue these characters with humanity in a way that makes us care about them when they get run over just a few moments later, but Kelley manages the trick. (Kelley is best known for his legal dramas and grand speeches, but the first few episodes of Mr. Mercedes and his work on HBO’s Big Little Lies suggest he missed a calling to adapt novels for TV.)

Similarly tiny details slowly fill in the central town, too. It’s fallen on hard times in the wake of the late-2000s economic collapse, and even if there are remnants of the thriving small town it once was — kids playing hockey in the street, or the faded local café, now barely filled with diners — the predominant feel is of decay. Businesses, now closed, rust away, and the murderer works a job at a Best Buy-esque big box store where he and his coworkers struggle to find meaning in menial day-to-day labor. Even the ice cream truck feels like a wheezy menace.

Throughout Mr. Mercedes’ first two episodes, all of these qualities feed into each other. Neatly drawn characters combine with the small-town setting to build a world that feels as if it extends beyond the screen. When Hodges spars with his next-door neighbor, Ida (the brilliant Holland Taylor), or befriends a local teen, or feeds his tortoise, it doesn’t feel like pointless character quirk, as it might on other shows, but like a series of rituals designed to get through the day in a crumbling burg.

This type of world-building has always been King’s sly, secret strength. His settings and characters feel real, which means the introduction of the uncanny into their midst becomes all the scarier. (It also gives me high hopes for Hulu’s upcoming Castle Rock, a straight-up small-town series set in King’s most famous fictional town.) The actual crime-solving elements of Mr. Mercedes are a little old-hat — a lengthy subplot about the killer taunting Hodges via email already has me rolling my eyes — but its small-town foundation leaves me hopeful that it will become something more.

Crime dramas are most compelling when they feature characters and places we care about. King has always understood that; now, Mr. Mercedes finally offers an adaptation that understands it too.

Mr. Mercedes airs on AT&T’s AUDIENCE Network Wednesdays at 8 pm Eastern. The AUDIENCE Network is only available via DirecTV or its DirecTV Now service, though you can watch the first two episodes of Mr. Mercedes for free right here.

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