Stephen King via small screen

Los Angeles Times - - CALENDAR - ROBERT LLOYD TELE­VI­SION CRITIC robert.lloyd@latimes.com

The hor­ror-meis­ter takes a de­tec­tive drama de­tour with “Mr. Mercedes.”

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 co­worker (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.

Au­di­ence Net­work

AD­VER­SARIES Bren­dan Glee­son, left, and Harry Tread­away in “Mr. Mercedes.”

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