American Rust Captures the Hope and Devastation of the American Rust Belt


OK. It’s time to admit that I am not a critic’s critic. I’m a people’s critic.

I just want to be entertained, you know? I find so many things enjoyable that are panned by critics. What else can it mean?

When the first episodes of Succession dropped, I loved it. I was enamored. But so many critics panned it that I didn’t post an early review because I thought I was so far off the mark. Needless to say, that experience was much different once more episodes were dropped.

Right now, American Rust isn’t looking too rosy if you’re tracking it on Rotten Tomatoes.

Well, allow me to inch that score up just a fraction because the first three episodes were very good.

I think some of the problems come from a disconnect between city dwellers and the rest of us. Although I live in Pittsburgh and spent decades in Denver, they are not the LAs or NYCs of the world. It’s not urban living.

Based on the novel by Philipp Meyer, American Rust gets a very homey feel from showrunner Dan Futterman. At the center of the story is a murder. Its importance is on display as it’s introduced early in the premiere, and then time shifts to six months earlier to allow for the details leading up to it.

Set in southwestern Pennsylvania and involving a murder, people will want to compare it to Mare of Easttown, set in Eastern Pennsylvania and involving a murder.

But as anyone in Pennsylvania will tell you, the west is vastly different from the east. Pittsburgh is a small city with an expansive network so suburbs that meld into smaller towns. Philadelphia is an urban sprawl of a different nature, and there isn’t much to compare.

Because of its history with steel production, Pittsburgh proper isn’t at all what people expect. All evidence of mills has been erased. It’s cultural and lush. Unfortunately, the smaller towns outside of the city haven’t enjoyed the same renaissance.

American Rust is set in the fictional town of Buell, an amalgamation of rural towns in the area. It was filmed across southwestern Pennsylvania, and what you see isn’t created for the show. It is what you’ll find.

All of that is important so that you know what American Rust is portraying. The characters aren’t sophisticated, but that doesn’t mean their values and struggles are unworthy of exploration.

Jeff Daniels stars as Police Chief Del Harris, a military veteran struggling with pain and PTSD, taking medication in such specific doses that he crushes pills to weigh them precisely. Trying to wean himself off the drugs becomes more of a challenge as things heat up after the murder.

Del is courting local dressmaker Grace Poe (Marua Tierney), who is still married to her ex, Virgil (Mark Pellegrino), a relationship they are having a hard time shaking.

The sticky wicket comes when Del takes a call about trouble at the mill on his day off. Inside, he finds a body and a letterman’s jacket. That jacket belongs to Grace’s son, Billy (Alex Neustaedter), a hometown football hero whose talents earned him a D-1 scholarship that he didn’t take.

Billy’s life was upended with another incident, and it was enough to throw his entire future into question. It is also why, whether true or not, Del’s first instinct is that Billy murdered the man in the mill, and his second is that he must protect him.

It’s not as easy as Del doing it for Grace. He’s also atoning for his perceived involvement in Billy’s earlier situation.

Nothing is ever as simple as it seems at first glance, and that will be true of the character relationships, the crimes, and American Rust in general.

There is just enough character development and a hint of what’s to come with all three episodes received that I was eager to plunge into the next.

Daniels and Tierney are masters at character complexity. They also frequently speak for those groups outside of major metropolitan areas, and although they are sophisticated themselves, they understand what drives those unlike themselves.

If Del is rather sedate and cautious, Grace is a firebrand. She’s got a lot more in common with Virgil than Del, but she wants someone faithful and dependable, two things Virgil is not.

Casting Pellegrino as Virgil levels the playing field between the two wildly different men. The actor has always had the power to make unsavory characters almost playful, and Virgil a perfect fit.

The dynamic between Del, Grace, and Virgil plays well and is a lot more based in reality than many would probably like to admit.

Newstaedter, best known for his role on Colony, is a little bit more mature as Billy but shows the same residual angst that he showed so well on the USA series.

Billy’s concern for his mother drives his decisions but tabling his own ambitions to be there for her doesn’t do him any favors.

Billy’s best friend, Isaac (David Alvarez), is itching to get out of town. He’s been caring for his infirmed father, Henry (Bill Camp), since his sister, Lee (Julia Maygora), fled to Yale and later New York City, where she married a man her family has never met.

That dynamic is all muddled with Billy in the middle.

Lee was his first love, and losing her provided one more reason to give up on his future. Isaac views his ties to Billy as a result of Billy’s pain over losing Lee, and he may not be wrong. But he asks continually while leaning on Billy to flee Buell with him, something Billy both wants to do and dreads.

Drugs are an inevitable coping mechanism across the world, not only in rural America. I’ve seen the opioid crisis noted in several reviews of American Rust, but this isn’t a story about a town ravaged by drugs. It’s a story about small-town people and their daily struggles. It’s not always pretty, but there are moments of joy.

Futterman places great emphasis on a local wedding, for instance. He went to great lengths to get it right for the area, too. Southwestern wedding traditions are unique, from the Polka bands and DJs to the wedding buffet with rigatoni and stuffed cabbage to guests paying to dance with the bride.

I grew up with these weddings, and they don’t feature an exclusive list of guests but an inclusive one that brings together an entire community for celebration regardless of their status.

It’s not something that you see depicted often, and I appreciate the representation.

Part of the reason critics are panning American Rust is that they view the discussion on poverty as exploitative, even comparing it to their similar contempt for Hillbilly Elegy.

The problem with that analysis is the belief that people in rust belt towns don’t pontificate the what-ifs without taking action. Just because people aren’t inside city limits or well educated doesn’t mean they’re ignorant of their situation, wishing they had the means to better their lives.

It’s not escapist drama if the reality is that small-town Americans have big dreams that don’t often come to fruition.

With every negative review I see, I’m more insulted. My grandfathers were mill workers. They were more cultured than I am now because all of their hard work was to provide a better life for their families, including reading and the arts.

Thankfully, they were retired by the time steel went out of fashion in southwestern Pennsylvania because if they had lost their livelihoods, they would have pontificated about what could have been and continued to dream big, and it would have been heartbreaking.

All of this said it’s probably apparent that the murder is used more as an introduction to the characters and their situation than it is the baseline for the show.

Launching off the murder, American Rust uses its characters to show the devastating effects on small-town America after losing well-paying manufacturing jobs.

Relying on foreign countries for our manufacturing needs is under the microscope now as we struggle with inventory with everything from cars to building supplies to computers from the impact of COVID.

If this is the first time you’ve thought about the impact of America’s manufacturing decline, American Rust gives you just a small taste of how those whose livelihoods relied on it have suffered.

When faced with that kind of devastation and in the name of love, people can make bad choices. Unfortunately, the more limited the options, the easier it is to make a wrong turn.

Del’s involvement with Grace, effectively choosing her over the law when he discovers Billy in a bad spot, sets the stage beautifully.

Seeing good people making bad choices can be difficult to watch. But it hardly amounts to poverty porn, as it was called in one review.

Without an understanding of the area, the uncomfortable feeling one gets when realizing what’s happened to the rust belt finally hits might seem exploitative, but that says more about the viewer than the show itself.

Futterman gets compelling performances from some of the best actors of our generation for American Rust. It’s not a typical Hollywood production, and I appreciate the effort he takes to explore the area fully.

Will you be watching along with TV Fanatic? Our episodic reviews rely on your participation. So check out the premiere now, and let us know if you’d like to follow along with us!

American Rust Season 1 Episode 1 is available now on YouTube and, as well as across multiple Showtime partner platforms, and will premiere on the linear Showtime network on Sunday, September 12 at 10/9c.

Carissa Pavlica is the managing editor and a staff writer and critic for TV Fanatic. She’s a member of the Critic’s Choice Association, enjoys mentoring writers, conversing with cats, and passionately discussing the nuances of television and film with anyone who will listen. Follow her on Twitter and email her here at TV Fanatic.

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