The writer-director’s newest series feels like a collection of his usual interests and obsessions.
Kingstown, Michigan is as much an industry city as Bay Lack, FL, or McDonald, OH. Except, as Mike McLusky (Jeremy Renner) tells us in Mayor of Kingstown’s opening voiceover, the company that Kingstown answers to doesn’t run theme parks or make steel. They incarcerate.
While not everyone works at the prisons that ring the Mitten State town, everything flows from them. Mitch McLusky (Kyle Chander), the unofficial Mayor of the title, controls much of that traffic. His community diplomacy holds the town’s factions in uncomfortable stasis with one another. A guard goes too far in disciplining an imprisoned Crip? Mitch arranges for the Crips to get their pound of flesh without an outright prison riot. A bank robber is in hiding? Mitch negotiates the criminal’s surrender in a way that lets his family keep a portion of the take and the local PD puff themselves up.
Three episodes in, we still don’t know middle brother Mike’s story in full. However, we get enough to make some educated guesses. Mike, the McLusky who should’ve gotten out, instead ran afoul of the law. After doing his time, he became his brother’s right-hand man, the blunt instrument to Mitch’s silver tongue.
Youngest brother Kyle (Taylor Handley) joined one of the town’s warring factions, the cops. He seems like a good apple. The show doesn’t hesitate to show us that most of the department isn’t as righteous. Unfortunately, they’re as much about pride, saving face, and holding territory as any other gang.
McLusky matriarch Miriam (Dianne Wiest) teaches courses at the women’s prison. Her curriculum seems to revolve entirely around historical oppression. Kingstown gives us brief glimpses at lectures on the Civil Rights movement, the genocide of Indigenous People in the U.S., and the beginnings of the slave trade in the 1600s. It’s a pretty obvious metaphor for the prison industrial complex as modern oppressor and sits uneasily amongst the rest of the show’s vibe. Wiest gets to exhibit steel and bite in one scene with an inmate who’s trying to use her to connect to her “Mayoral” son, but the show has yet to build on that one moment.
It makes for the show’s most frustrating element. The show wants to give depth to its boys’ club drama, a good thing for sure. However, it also feels like co-creators Hugh Dillon (who does double duty as a cop largely unaffected by the moral quandaries of his job) and Taylor Sheridan introduced the elements without figuring out how to integrate them fully. As a result, every visit to Miriam’s prison classroom reads less like a correction to Kingstown’s energy and more like a sop.
[Taylor Sheridan’s work] typically comes with a certain ugliness, and Kingstown is no different on this score.
Speaking of Sheridan and the series’s energy, Kingstown very much exists in Taylor Country. Renner, no stranger to the writer-director after starring in Wind River, fits the groove nicely. Chandler seems a bit more out of place, but that comes around to work as well. Renner’s Mike is a part of the town; Mitch has long (too long?) floated above it. Their performances reflect that difference.
Taylor Country typically comes with a certain ugliness, and Kingstown is no different on this score. Child death doesn’t just occur; an entire episode’s cold open plays out like some kind of pitch-black comedic take on a Just Do It montage commercial to get us to that moment. Violence comes fast and hard, with the camera usually lingering rather than glancing away. Women either feel vestigial, as in Wiest, or objects for saving and/or lusting after.
On that last one, there’s hope that Iris (Emma Laird) might be bringing a more complex and active woman to the foreground of the show. Three episodes in, she has done little more than travel from New York City to Kingstown. Still, the show has covered that journey as though she’s the shark from Jaws drawing ever closer to an unsuspected swimmer. That has the whiff of potential to it, at least.
Overall, Mayor of Kingstown fit snugly in Taylor’s oeuvre alongside the likes of River, Sicario, and Hell or High Water. It’s telling tales of morally grey men trying to be better, very bad men accepting their immorality, and good men trying to hang on to their souls and dignity. It is the sort of show where a man drives a car through a fence, tosses a flashbang out his window, and puts a gun against a man’s neck one moment, and then enjoys a beer with that same guy later that same episode. It vibrates at a very specific frequency.
If you like Taylor Country, you’ll want to stay. The series plays with the same juxtaposition of brutality and common man philosophizing of much of his work. If you don’t care for his previous efforts, though? Well, it’s probably not a bad idea to skip the Kingstown exit while driving I-75.
Mayor of Kingstown starts taking meetings with citizens November 14th on Paramount+.