At the heart of Taylor Sheridan and Hugh Dillon’s Paramount+ series Mayor Of Kingstown is a bleak vision of the world. Violence isn’t so much the language of its central characters (cops, prison guards, gang members, and police officers in the fictional titular town) as the very air they breathe, while punishment and revenge are their structuring principles. Whether such a portrait is descriptive (here is the world as it is, depressing as that may be to understand) or pessimistic (here is the world as it could be, frustrating as that may be to imagine) is unclear. Intentionally so, perhaps. But that doesn’t make it any less discomfiting. Back for a second season following a riotous (literally!) finale last year, Mayor Of Kingstown digs its heels even deeper into a terrifying depiction of policing and gang violence.
A refresher in case you’ve forgotten: An Attica-style riot closed out this Jeremy Renner-starring drama’s freshman season, with feuding gangs, irate inmates, and tough-as-nails guards getting swept up in an all out violent war that’s left Kingstown very much bruised. Whatever order (albeit fragile) had existed before out in the streets and between prison walls has been obliterated. And as the first two episodes of this latest season show us in all too gruesome detail, no one and nowhere is safe. Not until some semblance of order (and law) can be restored. Therein lies the central motivator for Mike McLusky (Renner). Lawlessness like the kind he’s seeing day in and day out (rabid pit bulls unleashed on gang members, drive-by shootings targeting house parties, indiscriminate murders in the prison) are unsustainable.
But putting the genie back in the bottle, especially after witnessing the carnage that took place during the riot, proves to be a tougher challenge than our morally ambiguous protagonist could even imagine. And that’s on top of needing to get Iris (Emma Laird) to safety, all while trying to figure out whether a certain criminal boss died during the riot or actually escaped—a possibility much too dangerous to take in earnest without fearing the worst.
The power brokering that Mike is renowned for is what guides Mayor Of Kingstown. He’s but a man trying to bring order to the senseless chaos of the streets of his city, as hopeless and thankless an endeavor as it may sound. Amid a television landscape that’s given us everything from Oz and Law & Order to The Wire and most recently We Own This City, Sheridan and Dillon’s gritty series can’t ever feel novel even as it tries to wrap its pressing commentary on the American prison system in a thriller that flattens way too many of its characters.
Maybe this is why the most engrossing subplot in the latest season centers on Mike’s brother Kyle (Taylor Handley). After getting a transfer out of Kingstown, the former Kingstown PD officer is slowly realizing that there are scars from his time there he’s not yet been able to heal. The first two episodes offer moments where Kyle has to come to terms with the way policing in Kingstown has all but warped his concept of the world, where every raid is a potential drug bust, every pulled over vehicle a possible violent threat. (Of course, given the way the show is keen on plumbing the darkest of outcomes, the second episode ends with a horrific set piece that will surely set Kyle even further back, confirming his greatest fears both about himself and the world he’s committed to serving.)
In a sense it’s hard to fault Mayor Of Kingstown for delivering precisely what it sets out to do. Here is a crime drama that feels both born out of Fox News’ most depraved ideas of what urban living can offer (Drug dens! Gang wars! Petty thieves at every corner store!) and likewise out of the most nightmarish assumptions about modern-day American policing (Corruption! Senseless Violence! Rage-driven interactions!). There are no “good” guys and “bad” guys. Just, well, guys. Which is almost bleaker; the sole character who aims to steer herself above such a black and white world is Mike’s mother Miriam. Played by the luminous Diane Wiest, Miriam’s clipped breathy demeanor here captures the anxiety she experiences as she realizes carceral and policing systems are working as designed, eager not to rid streets of “criminals” but focused almost exclusively on creating them and thus validating the very “law and order” that guide their actions, both personal and structural. A brief moment where she chooses grace over punishment is but a sign that there are people who are committed to doing what they can to break down an unjust system.
Alas, as Mike’s actions suggest, show and character alike seem instead to find more narrative interest in (re)establishing well-worn plots about feuding gangs and violent power grabs. It may be gripping but it’s uninspired, both as television and as meditation on law and order in 2023.
Mayor Of Kingstown premieres January 15 on Paramount+.