‘Mr. Mercedes’ Season 1, Episodes 1-5: One High-End Machine

Arguably the most prestigious made-for-TV project based on a Stephen King property since the late, great, recently-deceased horror legend Tobe Hooper (“Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” “Poltergeist”) tackled “Salem’s Lot” way back in 1979, “Mr. Mercedes” has a whole lot going for it, to be sure.

The showrunner, developer and head writer is no less than David E. Kelley, who has a host of awards for such shows as “L.A. Law,” “Ally McBeal,” “The Practice,” “Boston Legal” and most recently, was nominated for the superlative adaptation of “Big Little Lies” for HBO. He’s also one of the few writers to have done shows for all four major networks: ABC, NBC, CBS and FOX.

As if that alone weren’t enough, such critically-acclaimed, multi-award-winning authors as Dennis Lehane (“Gone Baby Gone,” “Mystic River”) and A.M. Homes (“Jack,” “The Safety of Objects”) co-produced the series and wrote an episode each, with esteemed, Emmy award-winning director Jack Bender (“Lost,” “Game of Thrones”) behind the wheel for seven of the series’ ten episodes. That’s a lot of talent.

Of course, it wouldn’t amount to a bad day at a job fair if the show weren’t any good, but boy, is it ever. While it does expand upon the book in places, sometimes somewhat unnecessarily, “Mr. Mercedes” is, for the most part, one finely-tuned automobile that will make you think twice about using that key fob to open and lock your car doors every day.

As per usual, Stephen King excels at making the every-day events and objects of our lives scary, and unlike some of his work, this one is firmly grounded in reality- no supernatural shenanigans here. It also breaks the mold of a private detective-style story in that we know who the culprit is from the jump, and get to know him over the course of the story, so it’s not a whodunit, either- except to the main character, that is.

The plot is simple: Bill Hodges (Brendan Gleeson, ‘Mad Eye’ Moody of the “Harry Potter” series) is a retired detective still haunted by one of his last cases in particular, when a crazed lunatic mowed down a crowd of people waiting outside to get into a job fair with the titular Mercedes, killing sixteen of them, including a mother and her newborn baby.

Now, years after his initial murders, the killer, Brady Hartsfield (Harry Treadaway, “Penny Dreadful”), a brilliant young computer/electronics tech, has resurfaced and has taken to taunting Hodges via letters and the internet, among other things, almost daring Hodges to catch him. Will Hodges succeed before Hartsfield strikes again? Or will the cantankerous old man only succeed in making things worse?

Helping him in his quest is the computer-savvy young local Jerome (Jharrel Jerome, “Moonlight”), who works as a handyman for Hodges, mowing his lawn and the like; and the sister of the woman whose Mercedes was stolen and used in the crime, Janey Patterson (Mary-Louise Parker, “Weeds”), who hires Hodges as a PI to clear her sister’s name, who was crucified in the press for allegedly leaving her key in the ignition, allowing Brady to steal her car in the first place.

As the case proceeds, Hodges discovers that Janey’s sister, Olivia (Ann Cusack, “Better Call Saul”), was also taunted by the killer, who drove her to commit suicide for her role in the mass murders. Also like Hodges, the killer sent her letters to mess with her, and possibly may have infiltrated her computer as well, though that has yet to be determined on the show.

Of no help is Hodges’ former partner, Detective Peter Dixon (Obama-look alike Scott Lawrence, of “JAG”), who dismisses out of hand Hodges’ new “evidence” as that of a practical joker just looking to mess with him, and is too preoccupied with another big case to help him out in any way on this one. Likewise, Dixon’s new partner, Izzy (Nicole Barré, “The Walking Dead”) thinks Hodges is a senile old drunk who thinks his computer is “talking” to him.

It would have been easy for Kelley and company to keep the television adaptation relatively straight-forward, as the novel is fairly stealthy by King’s oft-lengthy standards, clocking in at just over 400 pages, but for whatever reason (perhaps to extend the number of episodes in the series), the crew has opted to expand and revised the material somewhat, sometimes for the good, sometimes not so much.

For instance, in this version, Jerome’s father (Neko Parham, “Underground”), who I don’t think was barely even mentioned in the book, shows up at Hodges’ doorstep to express concern about his son getting involved in the cold case at hand, warning Hodges off. This makes perfect sense, and I have no problem with the brief scene.

Likewise, in the most recent episode, “Gods Who Fall,” written by Lehane, after a rude customer that Brady knows to be a white supremacist type, gives him and his co-worker and friend, Lou (Breeda Wool, “UnREAL”), a hard time, Brady stalks the man and, using a device that can cause traffic lights to change immediately, causes him to get into a fatal wreck. It’s a cool series of scenes, and it’s in keeping with the book, and it gives us a little bit of action around the midpoint of the series, so I have no problem with any of it.

On the other hand, Kelley changes other things for seemingly no reason at all. The aforementioned device, dubbed “Thing 2” in the book, here becomes “Thing B,” even though the source of inspiration, Dr. Seuss, is name-checked here, just as it is in the book, and any Seuss fan worth their salt knows of “Thing 1” and “Thing 2.” You’d have thought SOMEONE doing the proofreading on the script or at some point during shooting would have picked up on this and made the easy fix to rectify it, but no…

What’s more, Brady, who is smart as a whip in the book, and careful as all get out, actually goes so far as to tell his mother, Deborah (Kelly Lynch, who’ll always be the hottie from “Road House” to me) about the device, saying it will make them rich and famous someday! What the what? Talk about a dubious add.

However, those are relatively minor changes in the grand scheme of things. One thing that they shouldn’t have done is to make Brady seem “off” to a lot of people. In the book, Brady goes to lengths to appear and act “normal,” so as to not stand out in the crowd. That way, he won’t be a suspect, right? Here, he acts so iffy a lot of the time that it’s a wonder he isn’t already as suspect.

At one point, Brady, who moonlights as an ice cream man when he’s not working at the electronics store, actually rushes off when he spots Hodges and Jerome waving him over for an ice cream! Yeah, THAT’S not suspicious. To make matters worse, Brady even goes out of his way to say hi to Jerome when he spots him at a local diner, thus somewhat putting himself on Jerome’s radar that much more.

Not sure what Kelley and Co. were thinking when they added these scenes, but you really don’t need them. On the other hand, I liked that they added the scene in which Brady goes to buy some poison at a local hardware store and is scared off when someone recognizes him. That makes a little more sense, and builds tension in a more earned way.

In the book, which I assume will be in the show at some point, Brady goes out of his way to a big corporate store, a la Wal-Mart, to buy the stuff, purposefully so as to not be recognized. While, like I said, this shows how self-aware and crafty Brady is in the book, I didn’t have as much problem with this added scene in the show, as it wasn’t that big of a deal, and actually shows by example how careful Brady is being not to get caught, something the other aforementioned added scenes don’t do nearly as well.

See also the rigged laptop Brady sets for his boss at the store, which is another example of a dubious add. Pardon my French, but as the saying goes, you don’t sh*t where you eat, you know what I mean? Stalking a customer outside of work is one thing, but springing a trap for your own boss when you’re trying to keep a low profile? Kind of sloppy.

Don’t get me wrong, I get why they are adding this stuff: to build tension, to pad out the material, to flesh out the characters, et al. But sometimes it helps to think these things through, you know? Plus, you expect better with such a high-end group of professional writers involved. I don’t know, I guess logic sometimes goes out the window in favor of drama sometimes, when it comes to TV and movie adaptations.

All of that said, overall, these are minor complaints. The show is expertly cast, with Gleeson and Treadaway both stand-outs, and it just plain looks great, with cinematography honors mostly going to Armando Salas (the TV version of “From Dusk till Dawn”), with a 2-episode assist from Yaron Levy (“Blood Drive”). It also doesn’t shy away in the slightest from the more risqué material, i.e. the ick-inducing scenes of incest; or from the more gruesome ones, i.e. the opening murders, which are fully intact from the book.

Though I do like Treadaway as Brady quite a bit, I can’t help but wonder what the talented, previously-cast Anton Yelchin (the most recent three “Star Trek” films)- who was somewhat ironically killed in a car accident before shooting began- would have done with the role. He was almost exactly what I pictured in my head while I was reading the novel, so it’s too bad we’ll never know.

Likewise, actress Ann-Margret had to pull out of the series as well, due to an illness in the family, also capably replaced here by Holland Taylor, Emmy winner for “The Practice,” in the role of Hodges’ neighbor, also heavily expanded from the book. Unlike some of the other adds, I didn’t mind this one, either, as Taylor is both amusing and sympathetic in the role. (Loved Gleeson’s reaction when she sprung some nude photos on him on her phone, lol.)

Also well-cast is Parker, who is dead-on what I pictured from the book, an attractive older lady with more than a little moxie, who finds herself oddly smitten with the cranky, overweight Gleeson. If anything, what was mildly unbelievable in the book- even Brady comments on it to that end- actually rings truer here, as Parker and Gleeson have chemistry for days. I’m glad they kept most of that plotline intact, down to the stylish fedora she buys for him, so as for him to better approximate the traditional gumshoe look.

It will be interesting to see how the show handles the back end of the material, as, much like the disturbing opening scene with the Mercedes attack on the crowd, there’s a scene towards the end that veers uncomfortably close to recent events, much like the vehicular homicide comes a bit too close for comfort to another relatively recent event.

I won’t ruin it here for those who haven’t read the book, but suffice it to say, King wrote the novel long before they actually happened IRL, which shows what a knack he has for finding the horror in everyday life, something that hasn’t changed in all these years I’ve been reading his stuff. Hopefully, it wasn’t what inspired these wackos to do what they did- I sincerely doubt it, actually, given the real-life circumstances- but it is a testament to his talent that most everything in the book feels all-too plausible.

So far, mostly so good. I may have my quibbles about some of it, particularly in terms of the unnecessary changes, but overall, it’s a pretty solid adaptation to date. We’ll just have to wait and see how the back half goes before I fully pass judgment on the show as a whole. For now, though, I’d have to say that Audience Network has another winner on their hands that’s well-worth the watch, for sure.

Join me in a few weeks for my summation of the complete series- looking forward to seeing Holly in the flesh! (Book readers will know who I mean.) In the meantime, let me know what you thought, down in the comments section below!