American Rust, review: Jeff Daniels is wasted in this miserable Snore of Easttown

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The makers of American Rust (Sky Atlantic, Sunday) will have watched Mare of Easttown with their heads in their hands. A cop in a depressed Pennsylvania town ravaged by drug addiction, called upon to investigate a murder? The comparisons are unavoidable, but the problem is that Mare of Easttown was brilliant, and American Rust is not. Instead, it’s boring. Mare had a mesmerising Kate Winslet and, crucially, leavened the mix by throwing in some humour. American Rust is so dour that within the first episode you’ll be as desperate to leave as the town’s younger inhabitants. 

Jeff Daniels is the star, an actor who has done plenty of serious work but remains set in the mind as one half of Dumb and Dumber. Here, he’s marooned in Glum and Glummer, albeit giving a solid performance. Daniels plays Del Harris, who we know is a good man because his sort-of-girlfriend, Grace (Maura Tierney), says: “You’re a good man, Del Harris.” Del also measures out his day in prescription drugs, a consequence of his time in the Gulf War. 

The setting is Buell, a working-class Rust Belt (hence the name) steel mill town which has shades of The Deer Hunter. Everything is depressing, including the colour palette. Grace’s son hates living in Buell. Grace’s son’s best friend hates living in Buell, and early on walks out onto a frozen lake in the hope that it gives way beneath him (it does). Grace is seeing Del Harris but also still in some awful relationship with her terrible ex. One character has managed to leave town, and is living a wealthy lifestyle in New York City, but she doesn’t seem very happy either. 

It feels unfair to mention an actress’s looks, but sometimes it’s unavoidable: Tierney still has the surgically enhanced face of the wealthy wife she played in The Affair, so looks wholly out of place as a struggling Pennsylvanian factory worker. The pacing is too slow, and wall-to-wall misery does not count as “prestige” TV. It’s a shame, because America’s industrial decline is an interesting topic. But Mare of Easttown got there first, and did it way better.

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