In one of his occasional breaks from the supernatural, Stephen King created a detective, Bill Hodges, to engage with strictly human monsters. The first Hodges book, 2014’s “Mr. Mercedes,” has been adapted for television by David E. Kelley, who seems clever again after writing the hit HBO miniseries “Big Little Lies.” It premieres Wednesday on DirecTV’s Audience channel.
For its first four hours anyway — the ones available to review — it’s a fairly straightforward adaptation, streamlined in most respects but also built out with new scenes and characters, some of whom, it seems clear, may not be sticking around.
Like the novel, it begins with people waiting in line at a job fair – jobs and joblessness, meaningful and meaningless work are recurring themes. A Mercedes Benz, driven by a clown-masked somebody, comes out of the fog and plows deliberately into the crowd, making hash of characters you have seen just enough of to like. It is not handled delicately.
Two years later, police detective Hodges (Brendan Gleeson), whom we have met briefly at the crime scene described above, has retired into a recliner-bound life of sloth and obesity and chasing kids off his messy lawn. That he plays old vinyl records and has a pet tortoise are good indications he is a person we might want to get to know.
Hodges is unexpectedly rescued from his melancholy purgatory when he receives an arty, glitchy video message on the laptop he barely knows how to use. It’s from the murderer, naturally, who calls himself Mr. Mercedes and hopes, as has long been the way with madmen and the cops who chase them, to mess with Hodges’ head, taunting him with the case he failed to solve and the dead he did not avenge.
King does not waste time naming his antagonist, and neither does Kelley — and it’s just the weirdo you’d pick out of the lineup. (I’m going to tell you now, so look away if you need to). Yes, it’s young Brady Hartsfield (Harry Treadaway), who works as both a roving IT tech and an ice cream man, as if one obvious gig weren’t enough.
Brady has a condescending boss at the electronics store (Robert Stanton) and a sardonic but centered co-worker (Breeda Wool) whom one would like to see walk into a detective show of her own. More to the point of his troubled back story, he has a mother (Kelly Lynch) who smokes and drinks and is friendly toward her son in ways all human cultures deem inappropriate, though Lynch somehow manages to make her character seem reasonable.
King fans may feel differently, but the screen version improves on the paper original, just for spending less time inside the heads of the killer and his cop. Letters you wouldn’t bother to finish in life, even if written to you by a psycho killer, and long, repetitive conversations boil down happily here to a handful of lines. They’re not all good lines but they get the job done, and quickly.
Even so, this is not, in its early episodes, exactly a rollicking ride. It is even a little dull to start as you wait, with some impatience, for Hodges to rouse himself from his torpor, sober up and straighten up and get back up on his figurative horse.
That’s not a bad thing — you need to leave room for things to get crazy later. Nor is it fatal that, apart from the specific arrangement of tropes and scenes and characters, there is nothing particularly original about “Mr. Mercedes.” This is familiar, old-fashioned stuff. Television veteran Jack Bender’s direction is workmanlike in the better sense: It doesn’t call attention to itself; it looks like what TV looked like before TV looked like the movies.
The cast, which also notably includes Mary-Louise Parker and Holland Taylor as women in or around Hodges’ life, is good; the players keep warm what could be a chilly exercise. As the designated nutcase, Treadaway (Dr. Frankenstein on “Penny Dreadful”) has the most to wrestle with but does get the odd moment of relative normalcy — relative, mind you — in which he makes Brady at least a little human.
The less he grumbles, the more Gleeson, who was Mad-Eye Moody in the “Harry Potter” films, grows on you. There are two more Hodges books left to adapt, and I would be surprised to see them left on the shelf.
Where: Audience (DirecTV)
When: 5 and 8 p.m. Wednesday
Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)
Follow Robert Lloyd on Twitter @LATimesTVLloyd