Will they make it? WILL THEY MAKE IT?
When a show puts its main characters in grave danger once, maybe twice, well, it can work as an exploration of how they cope with possible death. But when a show is built around the repeated close escapes of the main characters, when viewers are asked to pretend that these people could die again and again when we know deep down they won’t, it can be more exhausting than engaging. What’s worse, each near miss has to have increasingly higher stakes, in order to be more thrilling than the previous one. Can they possibly survive THIS one?
Unfortunately, Apple TV+’s new series adaptation of Paul Theroux’s 1981 novel “The Mosquito Coast” and Peter Weir’s 1986 movie gets caught up in that kind of mishegas early on. What was more powerful as a character study of a man obsessed, one who drags his family into serious danger because of his extreme views against American consumerism, has been restyled into an action-adventure tale. Instead of a look into the impossible relationship between noble ideals and the world that we actually live in, the Apple TV+ version is more of a mechanical genre piece, a suspense escalator.
The suspense is the result of some important alterations in the original story line. This time, Allie Fox (Justin Theroux, who is Paul’s nephew) has forced his family to go on the lam because the American government has renewed its effort to capture him on an old — and to us, for much of the season, unknown — charge. He takes his teen kids, Dina (Logan Polish) and Charlie (Gabriel Bateman), and his wife, Margo (Melissa George), who’ve been living with him undercover in California, on a precarious journey to get across the border into Mexico, where some ruthless cartel people also begin to chase them. That critical change in “The Mosquito Coast” makes sense in terms of infusing mystery into what will be an extended narrative, as we wonder what exactly Allie did to trigger such a perilous escape. But it also makes the show feel more conventional and less of an exploration into the psychology of the man who wreaks all the havoc and the family who goes along with him in an almost cult-like fashion.
That said, the seven-episode series, which premieres Friday, does offer some fine location shooting — both in the desert and in Mexico City — and some excellent work by Theroux. He gives us a man whose brilliance and resourcefulness are entwined with his ego. He doesn’t panic when his daughter or wife questions his reasoning, because he’s confident enough to believe he always knows the best way. He also seems to use the mystery about Allie’s crime to add to his sketchiness. Is Allie a good man, underneath his violent distaste for the American Dream, a victim of some legal hypocrisy? Is he just a big arrogant pill who thinks he’s made of Teflon? Theroux toys with our need to judge.
Ultimately, the first season feels a bit like a walkway to the real story — or, more accurately, a runway. It’s a lot of busy preamble. The extended cast, including James LeGros and Kimberly Elise as NSA agents and Ian Hart as a hitman, is OK, but the roles are written without much depth and grounded in clichés. They’re just the people trying to catch the Foxes, and not a lot more.
THE MOSQUITO COAST
Starring: Justin Theroux, Melissa George, Gabriel Bateman, Logan Polish, Scotty Tovar, James LeGros, Kimberly Elise, Ian Hart
On: Apple TV+. Premieres Friday.