The first thing you need to know about the new Paramount+ drama Mayor of Kingstown is that it is not a spinoff, reboot, or in any other way tied to Mare of Easttown, despite the two shows having sound-alike names. It’s the most confusing bit of series nomenclature since NCIS launched while CSI was still on the air, or perhaps going back to when ABC and CBS debuted dramas called Once and Again and Now And Again in the same season. Then again, maybe the echoing title is helpful. Mayor, like Mare, takes place in a dying Rust Belt community, and has a brooding title character who’s connected to law enforcement and knows everyone in town yet would probably be better off leaving.
Mostly, though, what you need to know about Mayor of Kingstown is that it was created by Taylor Sheridan, the mastermind behind Paramount Network’s Yellowstone. Mayor is a bit less soapy than Yellowstone (a.k.a. cable’s most popular series), and its setting is urban and cramped rather than the wide-open spaces of Montana where the Dutton family does battle. But both look at the modern state of America through a relentlessly grim lens, making the dour Mare of Easttown seem like a laugh riot by comparison.
The Michigan city of Kingstown is one where the only industry remaining is incarceration. As Mike McLusky (Jeremy Renner) explains in an early voiceover, Kingstown is home to “seven prisons in a 10-mile radius. Twenty thousand lost souls with no hope, no future, and I’m their link to a world that doesn’t want them.” Mike’s older brother Mitch (Kyle Chandler) holds the unofficial title of mayor, though his job seems to be as power broker in and around the prisons. The McLuskys — including younger brother Kyle (Taylor Handley), who works as a cop alongside Ian (Hugh Dillon, who co-created the series with Sheridan) — keep the peace among the various gangs in each facility, help prison guards out of legal and ethical jams, and run errands in the outside world for both the cops and particularly rich or influential convicts (one played, very briefly in the early episodes, by Game of Thrones alum Aidan Gillen).
The local police chief says of Mike that “I don’t know how to explain what the fuck he does for a living.” But in short, the McLuskys are all-purpose fixers for any kind of crime story Sheridan and his collaborators want to tell. What distinguishes them from so many of their peers in this antihero space is that they’re not getting rich off of their work, or even trying to. Their estranged mother Mariam (Dianne Wiest) at one point suggests Mike and Mitch have wasted their lives becoming part-time gangsters — “And you think,” she adds, “because you don’t make much money, that it’s noble?”
The show acknowledges early and often that the system the McLuskys help maintain is fundamentally broken and awful, and that everyone involved in it is corrupt on some level. Stories in the first and third episodes hinge on cops orchestrating the violent deaths of criminals they don’t want to see stand trial, while the one in between dramatizes the lethal injection of a death row inmate in such harrowing detail that it makes the state-sanctioned killing seem just as monstrous, if not more. At times — particularly when we see Mariam teaching the women’s prison inmates about the long history of racial injustice and oppression in our country — it feels like Sheridan has a very clear, if unpleasant to watch, argument to make about the rot that has long existed at the heart of the American experiment. But much as Mike can’t articulate a defense of his work to his mother, Mayor of Kingstown at times doesn’t seem to have much to say about the physical and emotional atrocities it depicts beyond a rueful shake of the head at how things have to be this way. And often, it barely pauses to shrug as sex workers are assaulted, or Mitch warns an inmate’s father that his son is “going to become somebody’s girl for the next decade” if they don’t take the McLuskys’ advice. This is just life in Kingstown, unfortunately.
Chandler’s role is less prominent than the marketing is suggesting. This is really a showcase for Renner, especially as Mike has to take on more and more of the “mayoral” duties. There’s a subplot in one episode about Mike buying a bow and arrow to deal with a bear that’s been wandering around his property, but the similarities to Renner’s work as Hawkeye in the MCU end there. This is Renner at the glummest and most straightforward end of his range. He can do that well — as he did in Sheridan’s 2017 crime film Wind River, and as he does here — but he tends to be a much more interesting actor when he’s allowed to play things weirder or funnier. Humor creeps into the margins of Mayor, usually involving Mike’s interactions with Bunny (Tobi Bamtefa), the local Crips boss who conducts all his business on the lawn outside a local housing project, but mostly Renner just acts tired and frustrated. The feeling is contagious.
“You remember when you’re a little kid, you used to think that, you know, maybe you can do something in life that makes you happy,” Mike tells Bunny at one point. “And then you figure out that there’s no such thing as happy.” There’s no such thing as happy in a Taylor Sheridan show, certainly, and this one in particular. Darkness is fine when it’s in service of something deeper and less formulaic, as we saw by the end of Mare of Easttown. (And, for that matter, as we’ve seen in various Sheridan-scripted films, including Hell or High Water.) Much of Mayor of Kingstown, though, may as well have rolled off an assembly line from the kind of factory the city used to host in more prosperous days. Its stars and its co-creator will get it some attention — as, perhaps, will a title that could just as easily be Mare of Rennertown or 2 Mare 2 Renner — but like Mariam McLusky, you’ll probably wish the people involved were devoting their talents to something better.
The first two episodes of Mayor of Kingstown premiere Nov. 14 on Paramount+, with additional episodes releasing weekly. I’ve seen the first three.