In the third episode of Mr. Mercedes, retired cop Bill Hodges (Brendan Gleeson) loses his temper with a young bartender who is too distracted by texting and flirting to do his job well. He unloads on the kid with a rant about all the things that were better back in his day, including the fact that, “We actually thought that principles mattered. Manners mattered. Doing your fucking job right mattered!”
Though David E. Kelley didn’t write that episode (the script is credited to A.M. Homes, one of several novelists, including Dennis Lehane, on the Mr. Mercedes staff), he developed the series from the Stephen King novel of the same name. And it’s part of his recent burst of Get Off My Lawn TV, telling stories about discarded old-timers — Kathy Bates in Harry’s Law, Billy Bob Thornton in Goliath — proving they’ve still got it. Hodges was by all accounts a legend in his day, but now he’s pickling himself in booze and old records — episodes tend to open with T Bone Burnett’s “It’s Not Too Late” illustrating the idea that Bill can still come out of this — and struggling to get his ex-partner Pete (Scott Lawrence) to believe that he has new evidence about the eponymous serial killer.
It’s not hard to imagine what might be drawing Kelley to these kinds of stories. He’s in his sixties now, and it’s been nearly 20 years since he was at his most celebrated peak, the year he swept the best drama and comedy Emmy awards with The Practice and Ally McBeal — a double-shot no one had achieved before (or has since). Might he empathize with a Bill Hodges — or Billy McBride, Harriet Korn, or Denny Crane — because the world keeps telling them their best work is behind them, even though they know they can still do the damn job as well as they ever did before?
The early parts of Mr. Mercedes (it debuts tonight at 8pm ET on DirecTV’s Audience Network; I’ve seen the first four episodes) aren’t quite Kelley in top form, even for this sub-genre of his. (The comparable passage of Goliath was stronger, though that show fell apart at the end of its first season.) But it’s sturdy genre fare, adapted well, as Kelley and his collaborators (including longtime Lost director Jack Bender) depict the cat-and-mouse game between Bill and Brady Hartsfield (Harry Treadaway from Penny Dreadful), who committed the mass killing that gives the series its title, and continues to taunt Bill with messages and videos years after the case was abandoned as unsolvable.