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Review: 'One Dollar' uncovers human and murder mysteries in a Rust Belt steel town

Review: 'One Dollar' uncovers human and murder mysteries in a Rust Belt steel town
Philip Ettinger plays a steel mill worker struggling to keep his head above water in the CBS All Access series "One Dollar." (Patrick Harbron/CBS)

In "One Dollar," a savory serial drama premiering Thursday on CBS All Access, a dollar bill — an ordinary American buck — goes for a ride around a fictional west Pennsylvania mill town, shaping the borders of a murder mystery and coming by turns into the hands of characters who will have more or less or perhaps nothing to do with it.

As carefully as the casual transfer of this bill is recorded, it is a narrative gimmick, rather than a plot element, at least within the six episodes available for review. Each episode bears the name of a character, into whose possession the dollar comes, and who will be introduced into the story or dominate the hour, marginally. (There is a lot going on; you may want to take notes.) It may have some small meaning — there are numbers written on it, to help us tell it from all the other dollars we see — and in a general way, its travels describe a community: But it is almost entirely beside the point, the title of the show notwithstanding.

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Braden is one of those big small towns, common to television and mystery stories, that comes with its cops, its criminals, its country club set and its skate rats, its people who say "you" and people who say "youse." (What is missing, someone will point out, is a middle class.) It is small enough that characters are coincidentally crossing paths and big enough to stand for something less provincial.

The money trail, to follow that dollar, starts with steel mill worker Garrett Drimmer (Philip Ettinger), into whose coffee cup the titular buck is passed by a well-to-do lady who has crossed the tracks to buy muffins and mistakes him for a beggar.

Kirrilee Berger plays a teenager on the edge of a mystery and Nathaniel Martello-White is a detective trying to solve it in the CBS All Access series "One Dollar."
Kirrilee Berger plays a teenager on the edge of a mystery and Nathaniel Martello-White is a detective trying to solve it in the CBS All Access series "One Dollar." (Patrick Harbron / CBS)

A person whose natural agitation is heightened by economic anxiety — Drimmer’s a single father who can't afford even informal neighborhood day care — he is being dragged into some bad business by mill owner Bud Carl (John Carroll Lynch), likely having something to do with the great pool of blood discovered down at the plant. On top of that storyline, he’s also intervened physically in what he mistakenly assumed was an attack on teenager Dannie Furlbee (Kirrilee Berger) near a country club pool in the middle of the night.

Meanwhile, insomniac private eye and former police detective Jake Noveer (Nathaniel Martello-White) winds up working both for Dannie's mother, who suspects her husband of cheating, and — to their mutual ignorance — her father (Greg Germann), a developer who wants the inside scoop on what’s happening at the mill and has plans of his own for Braden, Penn., where all this is going down, within hailing distance of Pittsburgh and yet a world away. (Dannie will do some detecting of her own.)

Also in the mix: a self-critical schoolteacher (Deirdre O'Connell, especially excellent among generally excellent players); a grocery cashier (Aleksa Palladino) with an unusual childhood and a difficult father (Jeff Perry); a petty thief (country singer Sturgill Simpson) who runs a sort of open bazaar of stolen goods (the cops call him Wal-Mart); and a handsome mystery man (Leslie Odom Jr.) who throws fancy parties in a fancy house.

Most of the characters seem a little sad and weary, even the younger ones, apart from those who are relatively new to town. So many secrets are held among them that the series is suspenseful nearly all of the time.

Country singer Sturgill Simpson plays a petty thief, known to local police as "Wal-Mart," involved in a major mystery in the CBS All Access series "One Dollar."
Country singer Sturgill Simpson plays a petty thief, known to local police as "Wal-Mart," involved in a major mystery in the CBS All Access series "One Dollar." (Patrick Harbron / CBS)

Created by Jason Mosberg (author of the young adult con-artist novel "Grift" and last year's Nic Cage thriller, "Arsenal"), it is a show with a lot to like. The excellence of the acting and the admirable, one might almost say English naturalism of the production balance the sometimes improbable, even implausible action and the occasional sacrifice of sense to drama; it is true that in life, people do not act sensibly, but fictional characters should be held to a higher standard of consistency. Still, the writing gives the actors a lot to play with.

Additionally, "One Dollar" wants to be a big canvas show, like a Charles Dickens novel with multiple murders in it, that says something about who we are now. The phrase “fake news” makes an appearance, and a politician is said to be jumping on “the populism train.” Issues are raised about class and race in ways that, on the one hand, can seem a little forced, and on the other — you know, just, kudos for dealing at all with class and race.

Beyond that, it's a solid cop drama, with a respectable number of action scenes — which is to say, not too many, and just enough — and some classic mismatched partners between new Chewy (Joshua Bitton), who presents as what one might called mildly racist and misogynist, and Rook (Nike Uche Kadri), who is black and female. (I don't have to tell you that respect will come, since it always does.)

Parallel tensions, on a greater and deeper scale, animate the relation between Noveer and his old boss Police Chief Peter Trask (Christopher Denham). More than anything, Martello-White’s Noveer is what makes the series fun to watch — he's funny, a little dark and immediately charismatic in a rumpled, sleep-deprived, Philip Marlowe sort of way. If anyone should care to produce “The Jake Noveer Mysteries," I will see you there.

‘One Dollar’

Where: CBS All Access

When: Any time, starting Thursday

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Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17 with an advisory for coarse language)

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