Mr. Mercedes begins with a monstrous act of mass murder. A warped soul wearing a clown mask mows down 16 people by driving a car through a crowd. Bones snap. Blood gushes. We get close-ups of people getting trampled. The carnage is sick, indulgent, and not surprising: This is a Stephen King creepshow, after all. But what sticks with you isn’t the horror, it’s the humanity.
The violence is preceded by a long sequence that dotes on the victims — unemployed; waiting in line at a job fair — and their varied responses to a single mom with an ill infant. One man helps her, one man resents her, and this micro-portrait of fraught community frames everything that follows. When the maniac in the luxury sedan runs them down, you hurt for them because you know them, and you wonder if Mr. Mercedes has more on its mind than hit-and-run schlock shocks.
This prologue sums up the power and flaws of the 10-episode limited series from superproducer David E. Kelley. As he did with his buzzy adaptation of Big Little Lies, Kelley turns a murder mystery into a satire about gender norms. Here, the focus is on masculinity, and the perspective is pulpy: King’s 2014 novel was a departure for the prodigious scribe, a stab at hard-boiled crime fiction. The result isn’t as transcendent as Big Little Lies, but Mr. Mercedes sneaks up on you and makes an emotional impact.
Unless Kelley has made radical final-act changes to King’s plot, Mr. Mercedes is a whydunit, not a whodunit, much like USA’s thriller The Sinner. You quickly understand the titular nut is Brady Hartsfield (Harry Treadaway), a tech savant who works at an electronics store and drives an ice cream truck on the side. He lives with his deadbeat alcoholic mom (Kelly Lynch) in his childhood home, downstairs in a Batcave basement radioactive with computers. Issues? Yeah, a few. Absent father. Incest. Dead-sibling grief. They’ve left him profoundly impotent and feeling powerless. So one dark night a decade ago, Brady stole a Benz and went wild on the fellow down-and-outs of his Ohio town. He was never caught. And now, the high from that psychotic joyride has finally begun to fade.
Fixated on this cold case is retired cop Bill Hodges, a boozy man-bear played by Brendan Gleeson. “Mr. Mercedes” was Bill’s white whale, and when Brady begins sending him lurid emails — part of a larger stalking and baiting of the man who once chased him — Hodges re-commits to catching him. Their twisted dance blossoms into a meditation on where men find their meaning and the collateral damage they accrue in their flailing, framed by themes of work, sex, and age. Bill’s equipment doesn’t work like it used to. That’s hard on a guy, you know.
The series’ first few hours are dominated by setup that traps Brady the Bad Geek and Bill the Obsessed Detective in their clichés. But Treadaway and Gleeson are riveting and get better as the writing gets more thoughtful and the scope expands; the show is about how we take care of each other in a transitional economy and have/have-not society. Costar Holland Taylor is excellent as Bill’s sexually frank widow neighbor, as is Breeda Wool (UnREAL) as Brady’s lesbian co-worker, struggling to stay tough in an oppressive culture. Episode 4 — humane, chilling, and written by ace crime novelist Dennis Lehane — shifts the series into a higher gear. Mr. Mercedes isn’t prestige-class pulp, but it’s a quality star vehicle fueled with enough poignancy to make it worth the ride.