Jeremy Renner doesn’t its tiny Marvel Cinematic Universe screen debut until November 24, but you can already catch the Hawkeye star doing extrajudicial action in Paramount Plus’ Mayor of Kingstown. Renner leads the extremely sad new series, by Yellowstone creator Taylor Sheridan and Hugh Dillon, as Mike McLusky, a sad fixer always caught between what the series insists are different sides of the law. But as season one develops, any distinction between the two disappears.
The series premiere immediately clarifies one question: “Mayor of Kingstown” is just a nickname, but the position is as integral to the functioning of the fictional Michigan city as the person who actually performs that office. The ersatz mayor is part leader, part pillar of the community; he trades in favors, eats with policemen and drug dealers, and have a hard time for women in need. He’s such a guy who one moment will plant a weapon or drugs on some unfortunate person, and give some equally unfortunate soul money to take dinner the next. He is complicated.
But Mike has some kind of code that he struggles with for the longer he holds the mantle of mayor of Kingstown. It’s not a rare dilemma in a place where there are seven prisons within a 10-mile radius. Imprisonment is not just Kingstown’s only major source of industry; it is also one of a limited number of roads available for most residents. No wonder Renner grimaces as often as he breathes in the show.
The McLuskys are, in a sense, one of the most prominent families in Kingstown. Kyle Chandler plays Mitch, the abundantly charming older brother (role he had previously lived in), while Taylor Handley co-stars as Kyle, the youngest McLusky and the only police officer in the family. What seems to be a well-known Hollywood story of little opportunity — you either become a rogue or a cop — quickly becomes something else. Kyle is happy to look the other way when it comes to Mitch and Mike’s fixation; at one point, he is literally for the ride.
The real source of family tension comes from Mike’s relationship with their mother Miriam (Dianne Wiest, again wearing flowing tops while talking about the criminal justice system). But even this dynamic is difficult to analyze; at first, she seems hurt by the fact that he wants to leave Kingstown, despite this being a completely reasonable thing, given the circumstances. Then she tells him she doesn’t buy her action “defender of the less privileged.”
The first three episodes are full of that kind of superficially meaningful speech, followed by an equally insubstantial response. Sheridan and his writers deal so much with gray and blurred lines that it becomes impossible to distinguish some of the larger themes. The show isn’t really trying to defend or sink into any particular position; several storylines acknowledge corruption and systemic inequalities, but that is the extent to which these issues are addressed. The only real catch is that life is terrible in Kingstown, no matter who you are — though, of course, it’s considerably worse for those in prison. But that reality is established early, and rarely examined further.
Mayor of Kingstown deviates just as often into the high-octane, morally obscure terrain of shows as Children of Anarchy (in which Sheridan once co-starred), as does the extensive research of The wire, who followed the money — and the crime — from the streets to the most august of places. It never settles comfortably into both approaches, just as Mike oscillates between the “legitimate” world and Kingston’s underbelly.
There is potential in centering Mike’s story; as the only McLusky brother to have been through the prison system, he has insights and outrages they don’t. When he talks about the “rats tearing each other apart in cages,” it’s a particularly dehumanizing way of describing those who are imprisoned. The question is whether Mike really looks at them that way, or whether it’s self-loathing or a way to distance himself. He shows greater compassion than his brothers, but also anger.
Renner for the most part looks upset everywhere, but there are times when he shows up as the kind of inferior defender of the Netflix Marvel show – a flawed, conflicted person who still tries to help others. At one point, Mike is hired by a man’s family on death row to guide them through his execution. He then meets a family member of the murdered girl, and reflexively comforts him. It’s easy to think he’s playing both sides (he’s paid by at least one), but there’s also a clear desire to be there for both families.
The scene is the first that really makes you learn more about Mike, but its tranquility is soon stifled by the whole Byzantine plot and required violence of a future prestigious crime drama. Mayor of KingstownThe grand plans of ultimately undermined its real promise.