Thursday, January 13, 2022

American Rust

 American Rust is a Showtime series set in Western Pennsylvania. Being a Western Pennsylvania native myself, I thought I’d take a look. The series starts slow, but it can’t keep that up long; things go downhill from there.


First, the good. They filmed the series in Western Pennsylvania, and it shows. All the exteriors look authentic, including the weather. (Assuming this takes place in late fall. They never really say. The only hint is one scene of a football practice. More on that later.)


The acting is solid, let by Jeff Daniels and Maura Tierney. I might have more to say about that, too, if the actors had more to work with. (More on that below, too.) For now suffice to say the more streaming shows and movies I watch, the more I’m impressed by the depth and breadth of acting talent available. There’s no excuse for miscasting a role anymore.


There’s a standard complaint: people do too many things any rational person would know not to do. These are decisions calculated to complicate the plot or increase personal conflict, imposed on characters regardless of whether they make sense. It’s always better to think of characters as real people, not widgets used to complicate the plot.


The economy is shitty; we get that. The show does a nice job of depicting it. Things have been that way since I grew up there. (Actually, I grew up about an hour from where the show takes place, in Westmoreland County. The only major difference is Westmoreland isn’t adjacent to West Virginia.) I stay in touch with the area, having made three trips there last year, after years of returning to visit my parents. The people know how to have fun. They know how to take a break from whatever shitty thing is going on in their lives. They’re not defeated, though virtually everyone in American Rust is. There are so few smiles they’re not worth mentioning. Conversation ranges from “I’m sad” to “I’m so sad.”


I’m assuming the show takes place in the fall, as everyone wears jackets and there’s a high school football practice. This was a golden opportunity to show the local culture is not entirely downtrodden: set a scene at a high school football game. Half the town will be there. You can set up any interactions you want.


A scene that sticks in my mind (and craw) is a wedding reception. It’s a good opportunity to show various groups of people together, and to set up some conflicts and explain other dynamics. What bothered me about it was the venue. Whatever the purpose of the building when not hosting a function, it lacked indoor facilities; portable toilets were in the parking lot.


Honest to God? Things are so bad in Buell Township people can’t afford to send their daughters into married life without the spectacle of the bride going into a Port-a-John? I found it insulting as a Western Pennsylvania native, not to mention this was the perfect place to use a football game. All the same things could have been accomplished, and the viewers would have seen one of the things that still ties such communities together. Not to mention no one would think twice about using a portable toilet at a football game. (Though every town I can think of actually has real toilets at the football stadium. We have priorities, you know.)


This next may seem trivial, but it’s not, at least not if one is trying to convey a sense of community. At no time did I see any gear for any of the Pittsburgh sports teams. I forgive not mentioning of the Pirates. They stink and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. Where are the Steelers jerseys or tee shirts or ball caps? There are no Steelers bumper stickers, no Terrible Towels, no posters in houses nor flags outside. I had my issues with Mare of Easttown, but at least they acknowledged their proximity to Philadelphia with background references to the Phillies, Eagles, and Flyers.


Two reasons for these omissions come to mind. Either the producers just didn’t think about them – which is bad enough – or deliberately omitted them so as not to interfere with the intended narrative, which is these people have no light in their lives, and no hope of getting any. It’s unfair to the people who live there, and is a facile way to “honor” their suffering by minimizing their efforts and accomplishments. I keep up with local events in the towns that make up Penns River and, while I don’t agree with everything they do, they have not given up. They still work hard to make things better, and if a plan falls through, as many do, they lick their wounds and start over. I wonder how many improvement plans fail because too many people with the money and juice to make them work view the locals as the producers of American Rust seem to, as schlubs born to fuck up their lives and opportunities.


Do some give up? Sure. Just as some rich people never work a day in their lives and whine about how hard they have it. Is it fair to portray some characters in that manner? Absolutely. Accuracy is always a defense. Context matters, too.


American Rust’s tries to evoke empathy by taking the viewer on a journey as drab and joyless as the lives lived by the people the characters represent. It’s not effective because it’s not true. The audience will feel more for well-rounded characters, not a cast of whipping boys.



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