Review: 'American Rust' shows off western Pa., takes its time on a murder mystery

By Joshua Axelrod

Let's get one thing straight right off the top: "American Rust" is not "Mare of Westtown."

It's natural for viewers who enjoyed HBO's hit miniseries "Mare of Easttown" to compare the Kate Winslet vehicle set in the Philadelphia suburbs to the western Pennsylvania-set Showtime series that debuts Sunday at 10 p.m. ET. Like "Mare," "American Rust" strives to capture the feel of this region — in this case, the fictional small town of Buell — from its topography to its struggling residents. They're also both character dramas disguised as murder mysteries.

Showtime shared with the Post-Gazette the first three episodes of the Pittsburgh-filmed "American Rust." The most obvious difference is that unlike "Mare," which went to great lengths to master an eastern Pennsylvania accent, true yinzers are rare in "American Rust." It's for the best, as there's a good chance that wouldn't have gone well and only served as an annoying distraction.

This series also doesn't seem to be quite as showy in its performances or as interested in the central crime itself. This is a show about western Pennsylvanians who have been dealt a rough hand in life just trying to get by.

Jeff Daniels stars as Del Harris, a former Pittsburgh police officer who is now Buell's chief of police. He's got a thing for local seamstress Grace Poe (Maura Tierney) but is put in an awkward position when her son Billy (Alex Neustaedter) is connected to a murder. Del is also forced to deal with Billy's father and Grace's husband, Virgil Poe (Mark Pellegrino).

There's also the English family, which includes ailing patriarch Henry (Bill Camp); daughter Lee (Julia Mayorga), who left Buell for life in the big city; and Isaac (David Alvarez), who stayed home to take care of his dad but dreams of also leaving. Isaac's plans are interrupted when he gets involved in Billy's situation.

Buell is as much of a character in "American Rust" as any of the people. It's a hodgepodge of a place that was shot in recognizable locales like Braddock, Donora, Rankin, McKeesport, Ambridge and Clairton. The Carrie Blast Furnaces play an important role in the series.

That town has clearly seen better days, as have many of its residents. Most are working-class folks whose lives directly or indirectly have been ravaged by drugs. It's a place where men with guns show up to intimidate property bidders at a bank auction while police stand by.

At least through three episodes, "American Rust" seems way more interested in the everyday life of the town than the murder investigation. It's a smart move, as audiences start to care about Buell and those who call it home before they begin wondering who among them may be a murderer.

Showrunner Dan Futterman is reunited with Daniels and Camp on "American Rust" after working with both on the 2018 Hulu drama "The Looming Tower." Both have reputations as reliable character actors, and both bring their A-game to "American Rust," with Daniels making Del a gruff yet relatable presence and Camp displaying a constant sense of wounded pride as Henry struggles to accept the limitations of his condition.

Tierney immerses herself in the western Pennsylvania landscape as the tough but nurturing Grace, who clearly cares about Billy and who also shares credible romantic chemistry with Daniels. Neustaedter adds enough shades of gray to Billy that it's unclear if he's capable of such a grisly act. Alvarez and Mayorga have less to do than the rest, but it'll be interesting to see how their characters' journeys eventually pay off.

Some viewers may be put off by the show's pacing, as the buildup to any real action is deliberately slow. Each episode is 50-plus minutes, which in the age of short attention spans isn't always the easiest hang. But it is in the show's favor that episodes will be delivered weekly as opposed to all at once, so you won't have to worry about overloading yourself with a binge if you follow along from the beginning.

While Pittsburghers might not recognize all the locations seen in "American Rust," those who live outside the city will probably enjoy seeing parts of different locales smushed together to make Buell feel like one coherent town. Western Pennsylvania's rivers, bridges, hills and other unique terrain are also front and center in the show's attempt to be as authentic as possible.

Though there's no way to fully judge "American Rust" based on three episodes, it looks promising. Those looking for a more standard whodunit may be frustrated by the slow burn, but the character work and detailed attention to place and time should keep you coming back to see how it all unfolds.

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‘AMERICAN RUST’

Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)

Where to watch: Premieres at 10 p.m. ET Sunday on Showtime


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