Mayor of Kingstown is a Taylor Sheridan production through and through, and while it won’t be for everyone, it has all the macho hallmarks you’d expect and the opportunity to say something meaningful about a complex subject.
This review of Mayor of Kingstown is spoiler-free.
Given the phenomenal success of Yellowstone, writer-director Taylor Sheridan has found his market. Or, maybe more accurately, his market has found him. Sheridan has been writing stuff that dads like forever, from Sicario, Hell or High Water, and Wind River on the big screen, to the aforementioned Yellowstone on the small one. All his stuff is a throwback to a kind of uncomplicated stoic masculinity that has fallen out of favor nowadays. I’ve always appreciated his philosophical tough-guy musings because nobody else is really providing them anymore, at least not with the same regularity or on the same scale. Yellowstone, a cable powerhouse these days, was an exercise in Sheridan saying, essentially, “I’m going to do this the whole time whether you like it or not,” and his audience eventually coming to appreciate his stubbornness while other dramas began regurgitating the same safe, tokenistic talking points. Created with Hugh Dillon, Mayor of Kingstown is, first and foremost, another Taylor Sheridan production.
This is both a good and a bad thing, depending on where you stand. Sheridan’s the kind of writer to devote a huge chunk of an episode to, say, a random bear that has nothing to do with anything, and there is indeed a bit of business involving bears here, though thankfully not to the same extent. But he’s also not the type to pull any punches in his critique of the American prison system, even if he filters that critique through a family of morally flexible fixers who believe that bending the law, but not outright breaking it, is a noble endeavor. Ordinarily, that wouldn’t be true, but in Kingstown, Michigan, an industry town where the main industry is prison, there’s probably a case to be made.
There are, we’re told in an opening monologue, seven prisons within a 10-mile radius in Kingstown. Mitch McLusky isn’t really the mayor, but he might as well be since he controls the town and everyone knows it, including his cop brother Kyle (Taylor Handley) and his mother, Mariam (Dianne Wiest), for whom the family business – inherited from Mariam’s husband, it seems – is a cause of some concern. But for Mike (Jeremy Renner), it’s almost a calling. He has a bit of a shady past himself, so the opportunity to do dishonest work for honest-ish reasons is compelling. And besides, by his own admission, he wouldn’t know how to leave.
There’s a delicate balance in Kingstown between local gangs, law enforcement, the prisons, and their inmates; the McLuskys help to maintain that balance by doing favors, most of which involve passing things back and forth, rendering incarceration more of a mild inconvenience than a legitimate punishment. Most of the town’s most powerful figures, including Aidan Gillen’s Milo, who gets namechecked constantly, are behind bars. The town’s a delicate ecosystem of illegality, and everyone has a finger in one pie or another. Mike’s job is to stop any of those fingers from getting burned.
You can tell Sheridan is fascinated with what he’s created in Mike, a problem-solver with a suit and tie who is also liable to glass someone at a moment’s notice. You get the best of both worlds with him; the string-pulling get-things-done salesman-type and the old-school tough guy in one. Renner is perfectly cast. He doesn’t have the aged, weather-beaten wisdom that Kevin Costner brings to Yellowstone, but Mayor of Kingstown doesn’t require wisdom of him. He has the charisma and the physicality and the grimace to meet every demand of Sheridan’s occasionally unfocused script, which can get a bit bogged down in proceduralism and give Mike the unenviable task of preaching to the choir, demographically speaking. But one mustn’t misinterpret that as Sheridan misunderstanding his subject. He’s deeply, obviously aware of how the prison-industrial complex relates to matters of racial injustice, institutional brutality, and historical inequality – the irony in Mariam’s job being to lecture minority inmates about their own history isn’t an accident, after all.
Of course, Sheridan’s usual crutches – thinly-defined female characters and violence against them moving the plot along, in particular – are still leaned against with sometimes worrying frequency. But that’s what you get. You can’t complain about the general samey-ness of mainstream TV and then bemoan a genuinely interesting talent doing their own, quite specific thing. Mayor of Kingstown has its problems, sure, but it also has plenty of potential to say and do meaningful things in and around a complex, relevant topic. It won’t be to everyone’s tastes, but judging by Sheridan’s recent successes, enough people – and you can count me among their number – are on board with his macho melodrama that Paramount+ won’t mind.