While Stephen King is unparalleled in his ability to conjure blood-curdling boogeymen from the furthest reaches of his imagination (see: the demonic Pennywise of “IT,” the vampires of “’Salem’s Lot”), the macabre master is often just as terrifying when he turns his attention to more mortal monsters.
Case in point: “Mr. Mercedes,” which premieres on AT&T’s Audience Network Wednesday at 8 p.m., is premium-unleaded nightmare fuel right out of the gate, without even a touch of the strange or supernatural.
In its opening sequence, a group of people wait, huddled in line, shivering through a long night, for a job fair to open its doors. Silently, like a lion stalking through tall grass, a silver Mercedes appears, unseen by the crowd, headlights extinguished — until the driver, tugging a rubbery clown mask over his face, wants to be seen. The headlights come on, and the driver leans on the horn. One man in line, who’s just zipped his sleeping bag around a mother and her baby, squints back. Then, with monstrous force, the Mercedes tears forward, crashing into a mess of bodies, all tumbling over the car’s windshield or falling beneath its wheels. With the accelerator to the floor, the driver is unfazed by the screams of the dying or the sickening crunch of breaking bones. Within seconds, the Mercedes disappears back into the darkness.
It’s a horrific, haunting way to open the 10-episode series, especially when comparable atrocities make headlines with such regularity as to impart a corrosive breed of social fear, the kind that reimagines in the mind’s eye every public space as the perfect hunting ground for a killer you’ll never see coming. It’s the realism implicit in that first scene’s unsparing barbarism, the nauseating sense that homicidal Mercedes drivers are — unlike demonic clowns — the kinds of threats you can’t easily constrain to the multiplex in 2017, that drives “Mr. Mercedes” forward.
Two years later, the driver responsible for the massacre remains at large, a constant thorn in the side of washed-up detective Bill Hodges (Brendan Gleeson), whose obsession with solving the case only hastened an unceremonious push into retirement. He’s on his way out, sinking beneath a haze of hard alcohol and depressive thoughts, when online videos begin popping up on his laptop, mocking his failure to collar the killer and inciting Hodges to resume the hunt.
This isn’t a typical whodunit, mind you — we learn quickly that Mr. Mercedes is a socially awkward twentysomething named Brady (Harry Treadaway, of Showtime’s masterful “Penny Dreadful”), who works as a computer store clerk and ice-cream truck driver when he’s not tormenting Hodges from the basement of the ramshackle house he shares with his boozing, sexually abusive mother (Kelly Lynch). As played by Treadaway (in a role originally intended for the late Anton Yelchin, who died when he was run over by his own car, to add another morbid layer to the series), Brady is a vicious, teeth-gnashing demon hidden behind a keyboard, his lips twisting into a monstrous sneer as he unleashes abuse at the detective who gave up on finding him. But in public, he’s just another oddball, putting up with endless jabs from his persnickety boss (Robert Stanton) and finding solidarity with out-of-place co-worker Lou (Breeda Wool). There’s a sense of decay and economic hardship to every aspect of Brady’s small-town existence, and Treadaway exudes a smoldering, sour resentment that fits for the kind of character who, trapped in a dead-end life, would kill with a stolen car that’s long doubled as a status symbol for the rich.
For his part, Gleeson unearths a rejoinder to that consuming antipathy in Hodges, a man undone by addictive behavior and the combative demeanor that once made him a great detective but has served only to isolate him in his twilight.
No doubt thanks to the influence of executive producer David E. Kelley (“The Practice,” “Ally McBeal,” “Big Little Lies”), “Mr. Mercedes” is a hard-boiled yet slow-burning game of cat and mouse, Hodges taking baby steps toward unmasking Brady, who gets off once more on being someone’s quarry. There are other characters in the mix — from a tech-savvy young neighbor (“Moonlight” actor Jharrel Jerome) to a woman (Mary Louise-Parker) whose now-dead sister owned the stolen car — who help illustrate hidden dimensions in the two leads. But as a whole, “Mr. Mercedes” takes few detours in detailing its story of two angry men locked in a shadowy duel to the death, each lending the other’s crusade a discomfiting purpose.
Starring: Brendan Gleeson, Harry Treadaway, Kelly Lynch, Mary Louise-Parker, Jharrel Jerome
On the Audience Network (available through DirecTV, AT&T U-verse, and DirecTV Now), Wednesday at 8 p.m.