Television

Strong Talent Elevates the Despair Porn of American Rust

Prestige television flogs another round of working-class misery.

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American Rust. Showtime. Sunday, September 12, 10 p.m.

There's every reason why you might find American Rust irksome. It's about the 12,000th America-is-poor-and-dying tale going back to at least to The Grapes of Wrath. It's got all the usual suspects, from fentanyl to union-busters to vulturous corporate carpet-baggers to a drab and dying little factory town that everybody with a brain or a cute butt wants to get out of. All the marriages are broken; all the men are either rednecks toting hunting rifles or doddering old wrecks awaiting their mandatory strokes. There are moments—especially when the gruff sheriff is saving the sweet leading lady's mortgage from a mustache-twirling banker—that the show's artistic antecedents seem to be mainly dinner-theater melodrama.  In short, you've seen American Rust so many times you can recite most of the lines before they're spoken.

And yet… and yet… there's just too much talent stacked up in the cast of American Rust to turn away from it. Jeff Daniels as a morally exhausted police chief, Maura Tierney (The Affair) as an overwhelmed single mom, and Bill Camp (the basement chess wizard of The Queen's Gambit) as a dying and debilitated dad, are all too powerful to be contained by the clichés of their roles. All the characters in American Rust may be burnouts, but the cast and the show it populates is definitely not. Even in its slowest going, American Rust is hard to turn away from.

American Rust is set in the Monangahela Valley, a post-industrial urban graveyard in western Pennsylvania. About the only going economic concern in the fictional town of Buell is a sweatshop sewing factory that specializes in wedding dresses—which arthritic seamstress Grace Poe (Tierney) is naturally trying to unionize with little success. Even less is she able to motivate her son Billy (Alex Neustaedter, The Colony), a one-time high-school football star now given mostly to drinking beer and parking-lot fisticuffs.

Grace technically still has a husband, Virgil (Mark Pellegrino, Supernatural), the sort of guy who brags to his wife about the new sexual proficiencies he's acquired up from his young trophy girlfriend. But Grace isn't having any of it. ("I don't care if you can make me come a river of gold coins with a card trick.") She's more taken with the tentative advances of the laconic Del Harris (Daniels), slowly knitting himself back together after an ugly combat service in Iraq, even uglier police experience in Pittsburgh, and the prescription-medicine monkey on his back they led to.

The other family in this triumvirate of gloomy dysfunction is the Englishes. Widowed dad—there are hints of a wife's suicide some years back—Henry (Camp) is bedridden, and his adult kids Isaac (David Alvarez) and Lee (Julia Mayorga) have fled to greener pastures. In the case of Isaac, however, he didn't leave before becoming involved in an ominous encounter with an ex-cop whose battered corpse is later found in an abandoned factory.

Also part of the confrontation with the cop is Billy Poe, who, unlike Isaac, left some evidence of his presence at the crime scene. When police chief Harris discovers it, he finds himself in the position of mounting a murder investigation against his new girlfriend's son. Though it scarcely seems possible, the sad, busted lives of Buell's cast-aside characters are about to get even worse.

As battered as everybody is, though, the cast keeps them all alive. Tierney's essential sweetness in the face of utter exhaustion and Pellegrino's slimy charm are both alluring. More complex are Daniels' contradictory loyalties. After a long stretch as a bad cop earlier in his life, he wants desperately to be a good one. But how long can you protect your friends and their loved ones from the consequences of their own bad decisions? "We're in this together," Tierney assures Daniels at one point. Unfortunately, that's the problem.

NEXT: The Biden Administration's 'Emergency' Vaccine Mandate May Be Vulnerable to Legal Challenges

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  2. The Grapes of Wrath. It’s got all the usual suspects, from fentanyl to union-busters to vulturous corporate carpet-baggers to a drab and dying little factory town that everybody with a brain or a cute butt wants to get out of.

    *yawn*

    It’s the UNIONS that would have kept manufacturing a going American concern.

    1. You yawn at cute butts, sir? You must be quite spoiled at home.

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    3. Shouldn’t there be a /sarc next to that? All the UAW strikers at my local Freightliner plant get laid off every six months and that’s prolly the only thing that keeps that plant going.

  3. Damn it I always get Jeff Daniels and Jeff Bridges mixed up. I was going to say I will watch the fuck out of this show for the miniscule chance I will get to see Grace’s husband hold her suitor’s head in the toilet.

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  4. “Even in its slowest going, American Rust is hard to turn away from.”

    I’ll take that challenge!

  5. Maura Tierney is a nice addition and I like her, but she’s 56 – overworked single mom? She’s grandma age. That single mom trope is overworked is what it is.

  6. Jeff Daniels as a morally exhausted police chief, Maura Tierney (The Affair) as an overwhelmed single mom, and Bill Camp (the basement chess wizard of The Queen’s Gambit) as a dying and debilitated dad, are all too powerful to be contained by the clichés of their roles. All the characters in American Rust may be burnouts, but the cast and the show it populates is definitely not. Even in its slowest going, American Rust is hard to turn away from.

    This character construction reminds me a bit of Mare of Easttown. FYI, I’ll watch pretty much anything with Kate Winslet in it, but I had some troubles with this limited series.

    There seems to be a flood of high quality productions with excellent casting (Mare is another one of these) that kind of miss the mark. Although Mare was a good show and generally drew me in, the writers (producers?) overstuffed the plot with too many skeletons in everyone’s collective closets. It became overwhelming.

    A small Pennsylvania town just CAN’T have that many dark goings on with that many characters. At least not at the same time. Maybe over a 50 year period. Sure. But all between Sunday and Wednesday night?

  7. This show is somewhat inaccurate as the steel tariffs pumped a cash infusion into the Mon Valley causing much needed capital investment. Sure the gloomy blue collar disfunction is there, but with a brand new pickup in the driveway and a seat at the casino. It will be short lived however because the steel mills have been de facto controlled by the United Steelworkers for the last 40 years, and a lot of that cash infusion went right into the Biden campaign. Hey if you really want a good tv series, start a reality show called “What does Bob Casey do all day -or for the last 14 years?”

  8. Jeff Daniels is the best this show’s got to offer?
    I’ll pass. Maybe it’s dumb or dumber of me thought.

  9. All I can say is Fuck Joe Biden.

  10. There’s every reason why you might find American Rust irksome.

    But none of them bigger than “Jeff Daniels.”

  11. Isn’t stuff like this the equivalent of saying “Bettlejuice! Beetlejuice! Beetlejuice!” to Rev. Artie?

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