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Showtime’s ‘American Rust’ Review: Jeff Daniels Is Wasted in Mystery Set in Dying Steel Mill Town

Daniels plays a cop who’s pulse barely ticks when a dead body turns up in his Pennsylvania town

There is presumably a point buried amid the infinite frowns and vaguely tortured souls abound in “American Rust,” but like each character’s motivation, it’s undetectable. Showrunner Dan Futterman seems to be marginally curious about the Pennsylvania Rust Belt setting seen in the new Showtime drama, but not enough to build a compelling narrative about it.

Based upon Philipp Meyer’s novel of the same name, “American Rust” can best be described simply as a mood. Not in the same sense of, say, a series that provokes a particular disposition from its audience. Rather, it shows one actual mood throughout the first three episodes made available to press — and relies only on that to keep them invested. But it doesn’t.

When we meet police chief Del Harris (a mysteriously somber Jeff Daniels), he’s at the start of a brand-new mission: cracking the case of a dead body that turns up in a deserted steel mill. He’s not invigorated by or particularly worried about this development, though it seems to be the only thing in his life that gets him out of bed each morning. Finding murdered people in the darkest crevices of his small town just seems like a regular part of his day — like a cup of coffee at the local diner or glares from the townies.

Like the recent “Mare of Easttown,” “American Rust” seems to hinge on its own unidentified misery. But unlike the Emmy-nominated HBO series, the viewers don’t gain some satisfaction out of trying to unravel a murder mystery because the crime serves as little more than wallpaper. Futterman and his team seem to place their bets on the one-dimensional characters.

As far as the audience can perceive, Del is a loner living in a desolate house. Has a tragedy resulted in him being companionless or does he prefer the company of only himself? It’s hard to tell. He’s just a grumpy law enforcer in what appears to be a soulless town where bodies can turn up and no one but him and perhaps his peers seem to care. Or at least they get paid to care.

Del does seem romantically interested in Grace Poe (Maura Tierney), a shallowly written mother who’s constantly stressed out. She’s entangled in a lousy relationship and is relentlessly worried about the latest troubles surrounding her wayward son, Billy (Alex Neustaedter), who’s an easy suspect in the murder if only because he fits the shady profile. This awkwardly puts the emotionally distant Del in a tricky position as both a cop and acquaintance by association. Amid all of this, though, Grace is in the middle of a unionization effort at her workplace.

If that last subplot seems shoehorned in, that’s because it is. The “American Rust” writers seem to be mildly interested in adding it as layer to a character to avoid the flat, “worried mother” trope. But because it’s so underdeveloped, that’s all she still is.

Meanwhile, there is a lateral subplot involving Lee (Julia Mayorga), a frustrated Latinx young woman who’s found herself back in this white, working-class town following the death of her mother. She must contend with her mother’s disgruntled, ailing husband, Henry (Bill Camp), as well as her confusingly somber brother, Isaac (David Alvarez), by far the most grating character to watch — not to mention her residual feelings for a community in which she’s virtually rendered invisible.  

None of this adds up to show that is riveting to watch or even fun to discuss. Even worse, the opening episodes don’t set up a series that makes you want to keep watching. And as great as Daniels always is, even he fails to provide a glimmer of interest for the likely fatigued viewer. What a waste.

“American Rust” premieres on Showtime on September 12.