Jeremy Renner Suffers Through Prison Drama ‘Mayor of Kingstown’: TV Review

“Did you ever, when you were a little kid, used to think that maybe you could do something in life that makes you happy?,” Jeremy Renner’s Mike McLusky asks a friend. Mike’s staring into the middle distance and holding a beer. He completes his thought with a glum ponderousness: “And then you figure out that there’s no such thing as happy?”

Welcome to Kingstown — a Michigan municipality where the only industry, we’re told, is the for-profit prison complex, and the only emotion is a familiar sort of desperate loneliness. Mike works hard at both, as a sort of power-brokering liaison between the prison population and the outside. “Now it’s up to me to keep the rats in that cage content,” Mike tells us in voice-over, “and the keepers from becoming rats themselves.” In other words, he lives to preserve the tenuous status quo, a job that becomes harder after inheriting the duties of town kingpin, from his brother (Kyle Chandler). He exists on the fringes of legality — explaining in staccato sentences to his mother (Dianne Wiest) that “we don’t break the law … We bend it. To bring peace. For everybody.”

Peace seems far from Kingstown, a burg that is forever portrayed in a lurid light. (The show was created by Taylor Sheridan, who has found success with the soapy “Yellowstone” on the Paramount Network, and by Hugh Dillon.) The violence is amped-up and aestheticized — in the first episode, an engagement between cops and a prisoner is slowed down, with nightstick impacts registering as titanic thuds. It’s as if we wouldn’t understand that prison violence is bad without it being amplified, or as if we wouldn’t be able to decode challenging relationships without the Wiest-Renner mother-son bond being as elaborately fractured as possible. Wiest plays a prison educator who holds her sons in contempt; her acute awareness of just how precisely her child has failed his potential and his town comes out in bits of expository dialogue.

The obvious joke about “Mayor of Kingstown” is that its title sounds a great deal like “Mare of Easttown,” just somehow less memorable. There’s an accidental truth there: Everything “Mare of Easttown” did, earlier this year, might possibly have been clichéd if told in a less fluid and effective way. Mare, too, gives a speech about disappointment — the difference is that it’s written in a way that undercuts her rather than mythologizing her discontent, and is well-acted, too. Renner, as the lead of the show, too easily snaps into a prestige-TV grimace without much underneath. And the show around him treats unhappiness as the subject rather than a condition of an environment with much more to explore. It’s hard to imagine the viewer who will want to spend much more than the pilot’s first hour in Kingstown.

“Mayor of Kingstown” premieres on Paramount Plus Sunday, Nov. 14.