David E. Kelley Goes Grim And Gritty Adapting Stephen King’s ‘Mr. Mercedes’

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.

It’s familiar stuff that Kelley could adapt in his sleep — The Practice never seemed to run out of charismatic serial killers who always managed to hoodwink poor stupid Bobby Donnell until after he was suckered into getting them an acquittal — but the details, and the performances, are all well-drawn enough to make it a pleasing rendition of this classic rock tune. Gleeson is particularly, essentially strong, convincing as both the alcoholic wreck Bill Hodges has become and the relentless investigator he might be able to be again if anyone would just listen. Kelley and Bender have surrounded him with an excellent cast: Treadaway creepy yet vulnerable as the profoundly damaged killer (and Kelly Lynch as the mother who caused so much of that damage), Mary-Louise Parker as the sister of one of Brady’s victims, and Holland Taylor as Bill’s lustful neighbor. Like Goliath, it’s lean and gritty, avoiding most of the quirky humor (other than some scenes about Brady’s day job doing tech support at an electronics store) that was a Kelley trademark back in the day, and building enough of an emotional foundation on both sides of the case to make the slow-burn pace feel worth it.

Taylor won an Emmy for her stint as a Practice judge, one of 30 different actors to have won at least one Emmy for their work on a David E. Kelley show. Mr. Mercedes seems unlikely to be an awards magnet, as both a strict genre piece (a good-but-not-great one, at that) and a DirecTV-only show. (The Emmys noticed Friday Night Lights at the end, but that was splitting time on NBC.) But Kelley’s other 2017 project should be raking in statuettes next month, when he and many of the stars of Big Little Lies look to be favorites in the Emmy limited series categories.

That’s what’s both funny and understandable about Kelley’s recent Grey-Hairs Have Still Got It push. Big Little Lies was the best thing he’s written in years — one of the best projects he’s ever been involved with, really — and managed to demonstrate many of his skills as a writer without having to feature one of his contemporaries screaming about the respect still owed them.

Maybe the more interesting latter-day Kelley trend isn’t that he’s writing so much about older people — even all the way back on Picket Fences, he was interested in showing senior citizens battle to stay relevant — but that he’s doing more adaptations. Both Mercedes and Big Little Lies occasionally devolve into Kelley quirkiness, but for the most part, working with other people’s stories and characters has forced him to focus on the kind of basic principles that Bill Hodges rants about to the bartender.

David E. Kelley definitely still has it, but working with some constraints — adapting a novel and/or working with a forceful director like Bender or Jean-Marc Vallée — makes it easier for him to remind us of that fact.

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@uproxx.com. He discusses television weekly on the TV Avalanche podcast.