Thursday, September 23, 2021

American Rust

Some years back, I had occasion to spend several days in a Pennsylvania town, which had literally just lost its status as a city due to its declining population. The people there were wonderful, and the attractive architecture testified to a once vibrant past. But now there was just less and less there, less and less to do, less and less reason to remain.

Set in a much more dramatically dying "rust belt" town in a naturally beautiful, perpetually cloudy, and socially stressed corner of Pennsylvania, Showtime's American Rust is about people proverbially living lives of quiet - and not so quiet - desperation. An adaptation of Philipp Meyer's 2009 novel of the same name, American Rust seems so immediately expressive of the crises of post-industrial society with its family dysfunction, drug abuse, unemployment and underemployment, and unfulfilled hopes and dreams at all ages.

Inevitably, American Rust will be compared to HBO's Mare of Easttown, which was also set in a similar post-industrial dystopia. This is obviously the right time, socially and politically, for shows of this sort, and Mare has shown that such shows may succeed commercially. Mare Sheehan's world, however, while afflicted with similar problems, somehow seemed like less of a hellscape. It was a place where people's relationships, mutual support, and commitment to community mitigated some of the trauma that kept buffeting them. Institutions, notably religion, remained a presence in Mare's world - albeit maybe more in the sense of belonging than believing - whereas (so far at least) religion is effectively absent from American Rust.

As in Mare, the starring role is a police officer - Buell PD Chief Del Harris (Jeff Daniels). Likewise, the story revolves around a murder investigation, although in this case the victim seems to have been a somewhat less sympathetic character. Meanwhile, Chief Harris is romantically involved with Grace Poe (Maura Tierney), whose high school football star, now dropout son, Billy (Alex Neustaedter), sort of personifies the perplexity and fragility of life in that dead-end world, while also possibly being a murder suspect (an obvious complication for the Chief).

The other major family constellation includes a disabled and somewhat unlikable widower Henry English (Bill Camp). His remaining role in life seems to be to burden his children - Isaac (David Alvarez), his smart, gay son, who already in the first episode jumps into a frozen Monongahela River and later steals his father's money in order to skip town, and his daughter Lee (Julia Mayorga), the town's rare success, who got away, went to Yale, married rich, and lives in New York, but who returns to care for her father after her brother's sudden departure. Inevitably, she was once Billy's girl, and her return has predictable complications.

Only two episodes have aired so far. So how the characters and the story will play out remains to be seen.The second episode complements the soulless joylessness of Buell life with the wedding of two minor characters Katie and Jimbo (the sort once impolitely called a "shotgun" wedding). Practically everyone is there. So we get that comforting feel of small-town community closeness that papers over all that individual and familiar dysfunction. For most of those present, the wedding is a temporary reprieve from sadness and relentless dreariness - a chance to dance wildly and have fun. As one girl says to the bride: "What's this life supposed to be about, if we're not laughing as hard as we're crying?"

Episode 3 airs this coming Sunday.

No comments:

Post a Comment