Sometimes a drama comes along at just the right time. The Queen’s Gambit arrived, accidentally, at a time in this COVID-19 era when the interior life of the central character was in tune with what many viewers were experiencing; complex feelings about making the interior become exterior in a blaze of opulent style.
American Rust (Crave/Showtime, new episodes Sunday, 10 p.m.) arrived at the wrong time. It’s good and gripping, but deeply serious about a theme that’s echoing around a lot recently: decline and despair in the American heartland. One reasonably positive review in the magazine Reason carried the headline, “Strong Talent Elevates the Despair Porn of American Rust.”
The phrase “despair porn” is a bit harsh, but the series does dwell on damaged people in a declining town.
What’s lost in the dismissals is this: the series is a good thriller, albeit a subdued one, and damaged people at the end of their tether are not uninteresting figures.
Adapted from the novel by Philipp Meyer (by Meyer and Dan Futterman), American Rust is about a very troubled but archetype-ordinary young man, and an older man who has been scarred by history, both his own and that of the United States. And the woman who connects them, the young man’s mother. There’s a murder and evidence is hidden, for what are, at first, unknown reasons.
What grips is the texture of it. The drama is set in the fictional town of Buell in western Pennsylvania, not far from where Mare of Easttown was set. It’s beyond decayed, this place, all closed factories and tensions about locals losing their property to the banks. The people are as weary as the setting. Billy Poe (Alex Neustaedter) should represent hope for the future. He was a high-school football star, but he got lost in drink, drugs and dumb fighting. His mother Grace (Maura Tierney, who is superb) has a dead-end job, no health care and an unresolved relationship with her ex-husband. The third-wheel is Del Harris (Jeff Daniels), the local police chief with a lot of baggage – combat service in Iraq that he never recovered from, a depressing experience as a police officer in Pittsburgh, and now he’s surviving on a concoction of medications that make him feel alive, but just barely.
Everyone is flawed, and just hanging on, and open about it. That’s what distinguishes the series. It doesn’t present a central figure and then slowly expose the rot around them. The main figures just say outright that despair is around them. Del Harris is not like Mare in Easttown. He doesn’t have charisma. There are long scenes of the character slowly blending his drug concoction and they are so long it becomes mesmerizing. The Grace character is shockingly candid about her cynicism. This self-contained world is bankrupt, but is it entirely bankrupt of morality? That’s the question that will draw you in, if you have the patience. It’s worth it. Episode No. 4 of 9 airs Sunday and previous episodes are streaming on Crave.
Also airing/streaming this weekend
The Chestnut Man (streams on Netflix) is a newly arrived and better-than-standard Scandinavian-noir thriller. It might feel like a premise you’ve encountered before, but in the way Scandi-noir works, it is anchored as much in domesticity as it is in crime fighting. It starts in 1987, and a cop in rural Denmark is alerted that a farmer has let his cows escape. At the farmhouse he finds a scene of mass murder and one survivor, a child. The camera makes sure you notice tiny ornaments made from chestnuts. Then in contemporary Copenhagen, detective Naia Thulin (Danica Curcic) is trying to get a transfer away from crime work and reluctantly takes on a new case. She’s paired with Mark Hess (Mikkel Boe Folsgaard), who thinks the work is beneath him, as he’s a Europol agent. The new case is then connected to the murder of a prominent politician’s daughter. In the way that the genre works, the six-part mystery includes a lot of material about family, about politics and about unforgotten mistakes of the past.
Rebels on Pointe (Saturday, documentary channel 9 p.m.) is a repeat but a gem you may have missed. It’s a charming and shrewd take on the male ballerinas of the legendary Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo, part performance documentary and part portrait of the performers and the company. But filmmaker Bobbi Jo Hart’s other task is to make it clear that this group of performers is not a joke-act. One of the talking heads is James Whiteside, principal dancer of the American Ballet Theatre. And he is, as a professional in classical ballet, rather in awe of what he calls “the Trocks.”
Finally, 60 Minutes (Sunday, CBS, Global, 7:30 p.m.) promises an interview with a former Facebook employee who says Facebook is “lying to the public and investors about the effectiveness of its campaigns to eradicate hate, violence and misinformation from its platforms.”
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