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‘American Rust’ is a downer of a drama

Jeff Daniels as Del Harris, the police chief of a dying industrial town, in "American Rust."Dennis Mong/SHOWTIME

Maura Tierney brings all kinds of Maura Tierney energy to Showtime’s “American Rust.” She plays Grace Poe, a seamstress in a Pennsylvania steel town who’s struggling to get her workmates’ support to unionize their shop. She’s indefatigable when it comes to getting signatures, just as she is about launching her self-sabotaging twenty-something son and working to get her lover, Jeff Daniels’s police chief Del Harris, to open up. Tierney’s intensity is enterprising, playful, neurotic, sardonic, overtired, and always, always dynamic. When her Grace is in a room, the ions start shifting.

But Tierney is a lightning bug in the bleak black night that is “American Rust,” an eight-part miniseries based on the 2009 novel by Philipp Meyer. She’s passionate and focused, and a pleasure to watch, but everything and everyone around her is murky, dreary, monotonous. That vibe is, it seems, intentional — at times it’s even rather forced down our throats — by writer-producer Dan Futterman, since this is a story about, you know, the dissolution of the American Dream. At every chance it gets, “American Rust” makes it loud and clear that Buell — where money is scarce, except when it comes to buying drugs — is a suffocating industrial town slowly turning to rust, the place where visions of middle class comfort come to die. The first three episodes of the miniseries that were sent for review are so relentlessly downbeat, so lacking in urgency, so drained of possibility, it’s hard to care about anything or anyone in them.


Maura Tierney and Alex Neustaedter in Showtime's "American Rust."Dennis Mong/SHOWTIME

The atmosphere — which includes countless conversations about all the hopelessness — ultimately swallows up the central story line, a murder mystery that might be more engaging in a less wearying setting. Primarily, it involves Grace’s son, former high school football hero Billy (Alex Neustaedter, looking somewhat Taylor Kitsch-y), and his unlikely best friend, the more literary and sexually ambiguous Isaac (David Alvarez). The two appear to have been in the abandoned mill where a drugged-out former cop was killed, but we don’t know what happened in there. Billy returns to the crime scene to get his jacket, and Isaac, in a few poorly done scenes, eventually rides the rails out of town — to find his future, but also, perhaps, to run from what went down with the cop. Billy is a bland, decent guy, it seems, who makes bad decisions. Isaac is … I have no idea. The character, whose ailing father, Henry (Bill Camp), takes him for granted, is a cypher.


At the center of everything is Daniels’s Del, a recessive guy whose personality is hard to grab onto. In his loyalty to Grace, who appears to be the only pleasurable presence in his life, Del once helped Billy out of some trouble. But how far will he go now, when it looks like Billy is somehow involved in a murder? Like Bryan Cranston’s judge in Showtime’s “Your Honor,” Del may cross the moral Rubicon in his efforts to protect the young man from a long stint in jail. (Is this becoming part of the Showtime brand?)

Daniels is, as usual, compelling as Del fusses with his conscience and when he finally gives Grace some emotional content by explaining why he left city policing to take over Buell. Indeed, most of the scenes in which Daniels and Tierney are together have some of the spark so absent elsewhere. Otherwise, like the rest of the local population, Del’s always and only grim and depressed. Oh, and he’s a drug addict, too, nobly trying to titrate down each week with the guidance of a pharmacist friend played by Dallas Roberts. Del is leading, in case you can’t tell from the many, many clues in front of your face, a life of QUIET DESPERATION.


It may be that the last five episodes of the miniseries have some of the spirit that’s missing early on. Perhaps Futterman and company will add in some specificity, amp up the logy pace, sharpen up the dialogue, be less funereal. Perhaps they’ll give us a reason to care.


Starring: Jeff Daniels, Maura Tierney, Alex Neustaedter, David Alvarez, Julia Mayorga, Mark Pellegrino, Bill Camp, Dallas Roberts

On: Showtime. Premieres Sunday at 10 p.m.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at matthew.gilbert@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.