Friday 26 April 2019

Review: It's a mystery why Mr Mercedes isn't a global success


Sleeper hit: Brendan Gleeson as retired detective Bill in Mr Mercedes
Sleeper hit: Brendan Gleeson as retired detective Bill in Mr Mercedes

John Boland

One of the abiding enigmas of television over the last year or so is how Mr Mercedes never became a critically-acclaimed drama in the manner of Breaking Bad or Better Call Saul, or even Fargo or The Bridge.

That's because, and this is the real mystery, it's hardly been seen anywhere - its Wikipedia entry showing that it has only been screened by the small Audience Network in America, by Canal+ in Poland and by RTÉ1 in Ireland. And this despite the fact that it was based on a bestseller of the same name by Stephen King and starred such formidable players as Brendan Gleeson, Harry Treadaway, Holland Taylor and Mary-Louise Parker.

Part of the brilliance of last autumn's first season lay in these and other performances - and in David E Kelley's expert adaptation, too - but its truly unsettling quality was due to the fact that the viewer spent as much time in the company of its disturbed psychopathic killer as with the shambling retired detective who was trying to discover his identity.

That season ended with mass murderer Brady in a coma after detective Bill's nerdish young pal Holly bashed his head in, and the new season opened on RTÉ2 this week with him still in a coma but with the ambitious wife of a neurosurgeon trying to revive him with a new wonder drug.

After the success of his original book, Stephen King wrote two more novels about Mr Mercedes and the new series is based on the second of these. Already it looks set to be as tense and quirky as the first - I loved the three-minute dialogue-free interlude in which Bill cleaned up the crockery and glasses in his kitchen to the accompaniment of Randy Newman's 'I Think It's Going to Rain Today' on his record player.

It's these little touches, as much as the brilliantly realised and often violent set-pieces, that distinguish Mr Mercedes from most other dramas and that ensure I'll be keeping faith with it until Christmas time.

I won't be doing the same with The Podge and Rodge Show (RTÉ2), which has returned after eight years, though 18 would have been just as fine with me.

Here the rancid old rural puppets remarked on the changed Ireland since their last appearance, with Rodge reacting to the news that the current Taoiseach was gay: "You can't have a fella in charge of the country that doesn't know his way around a fanny." As for the same-sex marriage referendum: "I've just doubled me chances of gettin' me hole."

Then the two of them talked smut with bemused "posh boy" Josh from Made in Chelsea, with much reference to poo and mickeys. Presenter Doireann Garrihy fought to keep her dignity, but it was a losing battle.

Over on RTÉ1, Philly McMahon: The Hardest Hit was a documentary about the Dublin footballer's crusade against the drug addiction that had killed his beloved older brother. It was a heartfelt film and very worthy, but as Miriam O'Callaghan had interviewed him at length on Radio One that very morning, I felt I'd heard it all in advance.

Why does RTÉ persist with these counter- productive spoilers?

The third and concluding instalment of A Dangerous Dynasty: House of Assad (BBC2) began with the unanswerable question: "How does a mild-mannered eye doctor end up killing hundreds of thousands of people?" Hundreds of thousands of his own people, it might have added.

Part of the reason, this frightening film suggested, lay with his own mother, hardline matriarch of the family mafia, whose response to the 2011 Arab Spring protests in Syria was to exhort her son to act like his father - that is, with brutal repression of the protesters.

He could have opted to show sympathy with the disaffected and to promise reform, as some of his advisers urged him to do, but momma knew best, as did his psychopathic brother Maher, and so Syria descended into bloody civil war. Meanwhile, Basher's glamorous London-born wife, Asma, kept smiling serenely for the cameras of Vogue magazine and ordering fripperies online from Harrods and Paris fashion houses, even when the regime was slaughtering the inhabitants of her family's home town of Homs.

Written by Sophie Petzal and directed by Lisa Mulcahy, the third instalment of Blood (Virgin One) remained stronger on atmosphere than on plot and I'm not sure it's going to merit its six-episode run, but so far it's holding the attention.

That's largely due to the central performance by Carolina Main, who's from London but is persuasively Irish here, both in her behaviour and in her pitch-perfect idiomatic accent.

So did her GP father (a typically brooding Adrian Dunbar) kill her mother or is she just being paranoid? Certainly there are secrets being concealed and lies being told in this arrestingly evoked Meath backwater.

A true-life drama forms the basis for 54 Hours: The Gladbeck Hostage Crisis (BBC4), which ends its two-part run tonight. This was a 1988 crime in which a pair of clueless bank robbers in a sleepy western German town took two hostages into their car and were pursued by camera crews and by a dithering police force.

Throughout the chase, various wrong decisions were made by the police and last weekend's episode ended with the robbers hijacking a bus. It was gripping stuff.

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