2 out of 5
Created by: Hugh Dillon, Taylor Sheridan
covers season 1
The opening narration for Mayor of Kingstown explains that the titular town is the home to seven prisons. We are introduced to the McClusky family – mainly Mike (Jeremy Renner) and Mitch (Kyle Chandler) – who use influence and connections amongst criminals, cops, and prison guards to keep a sense of peace between the various gangs and clubs inside and outside of the prisons, tamping their forever-brewing enmities, and thus earning Mitch an unofficial title as “mayor,” with Mike acting as his enforcer.
A few episodes in to Mayor of Kingstown, I had a problem: where the hell are all of these prisons? To my viewerly eyes, I saw two: a generic men’s prison, and a generic women’s prison. As I’ll often allow, my lacking intelligence could be preventing me from grasping something obvious – and, uh, the internet isn’t backing me up on this curiosity, so that’s very possible – except this kind of “here is something that sounds / looks very gritty that isn’t necessarily supported by the actual visuals or dialogue” structure is repeated in more isolated ways all throughout the show. And in those instances, I’ll similarly seek out internet support, and find forums where people are questioning the same, with responses pretty much just being a range of guesses as to what happened or why something was said. These aren’t twists, or mystery-box plottings – it’s the show dropping large gaps of information or context, and just letting us vibe off of the intention. That can be fine if the series has other focuses, but Kingstown swings back and forth between ongoing plots of corruption and a character study, making these gaps feel clunky, instead of some type of intelligent prioritization. As in: those gaps become relevant, but they’re treated as though they’re the opposite.
Further evidence of this being a bug in the scripting (or perhaps editing – maybe some assistive scenes are left out for runtime) are the inconsistencies and the obliviously obvious “stop and think about this” moments in the characterization and dialogue. In attempting to pitch several characters into a moral grey, we instead wind up with unclear motivations – which stacks on the lack of clarity mentioned above for a general muddle – and Dianne Wiest, playing the McClucsky matriarch, Miriam, teaching a history class at the women’s prison in which her entire curriculum consists of on-the-nose metaphors about that episode’s conflict. (I do love thinking about what these classes are actually like, beyond the 30 second snippets we see – if it’s just Miriam reframing random bits of history in ways that are only impactful if you’ve happened to watch that week’s Mayor of Kingstown.)
There is value here, surely in the performances, and in the generally terse vibe, which, despite the aforementioned flaws, is executed effectively – everyone always feels on edge, and every situation on the verge of breaking. That the subject matter – the corruption of powers; the cycles in which we’re stuck and perpetuate – is rather generic isn’t necessarily a problem, because there are always new ways to talk about such things, but the show can’t get there in the way it approaches them. Renner brings a lot of weight to his role, as does Emma Laird, playing a very unheroic, unglamorous bit as Iris, taking literal (within the context of the show…) beatings that suggest that any advancements we’ve made towards gender equality are just a hump away from spiraling back to caveman times, but the show mistakes distracting Mike with endless peace-keeping missions as a way of exploring his character, putting the brutality of and subplottings related to these missions up front, preventing us from ever having time to actually sit and think on the show’s themes. (Which is maybe why it has to boil all that down to Wiest’s speeches.)
Alas, this mostly means we’re given a show about racism and sexism and corruption that hasn’t evolved the conversation much beyond The Shield, however many years ago, except now it’s shot with a prestige filter and has an A-list cast. Within moments, it’s effective, but those moments linked together don’t actually add up to much of anything – the zero sum remains pretty close to zero.