When Jim Worth (Tim Roth) moves his family from London to a small Canadian town in the Tin Star premiere, he shows up with the best of intentions. He’s got a beautiful wife (Genevieve O’Reilly) and two kids (Abigail Lawrie and Peter Turnbull), and is two years sober. These are all very good reasons to stay on the straight and narrow, which means he almost certainly won’t. But the episode (and the four that come after) makes damn sure we know he tried.
Tin Star creator Rowan Joffé is similarly forthcoming about his intentions and influences, which seem to include everything from Westerns to Quentin Tarantino movies, from A History Of Violence to his own script for 2010’s The American. Nods to the Coen brothers also find their way into this crime drama, set as it is in an unspoiled wilderness. And like Jim, who’s been “imported” to enforce the law as the town’s police chief, Joffé botches the job. The writer-director borrows liberally from those prestigious predecessors, but can only manage to turn his studies into clichés. The aging gunslinger, complex criminals, a morally compromised authority figure—they’re all present and accounted for, like names on a list that are being checked off. Tin Star has all the trappings of a great crime drama or revenge thriller, but there’s really nothing underneath.
As different criminal elements converge on Little Big Bear, Jim is ostensibly the only thing standing between them and the good townspeople. But if you’re paying attention—and you should be, since Roth’s performance is one of the few highlights—you’ll see that all of these roads lead back to the police chief. This isn’t a coincidence that slowly reveals itself and leads to quiet moments of reflection. Joffé and his writers map out Jim’s connection to a British criminal quartet, which includes Coronation Street’s Ian Puleston-Davies and iBoy’s Oliver Coopersmith. But the series isn’t content with a couple of solid threats, so it teases more conspiracies. To make matters worse, these Brit-filled scenes are incongruous in tone and direction with the rest of the series. They’re an attempt to recreate the dark humor of Fargo, but they present too sudden of a departure from the overall grittiness of the show.
But Jim is perhaps his own worst enemy here, so his failure to live up to his own expectations would be a sympathetic premise if those feelings weren’t quickly lost in the woods. Jim can’t be the reluctant warrior if he’s storming into bathroom stalls to punch out bikers. Similarly, he can’t be a morally compromised antihero if he’s so clearly champing at the bit to return to his old ways, behavior that’s referred to in hushed tones and with the exchange of disapproving and sheepish glances.
The series gives him plenty of reasons to fall of the wagon, beginning with a devastating loss in the first episode. But it’s a quick trip back to swinging London from there—in spirit, at least. Before Jim can say, “hell’s comin,’” it’s already there, in brutal beatdowns he can never seem to remember, but with quips and actions that feel quite familiar. The series is so unabashedly derivative of crime dramas like Justified (in ambition) and Sons Of Anarchy (in execution). And that hodgepodge of references manifests on screen, as Jim and Little Big Bear face threats from British expats, bikers, economic instability, and the oil industry.
Big oil is the enemy that’s featured prominently in ads, and is among the more promising of storylines. The industry’s represented by Christina Hendricks as Elizabeth Bradshaw, the icily competent vice president of stakeholder relations. It’s a bullshit title and even more dubious position, but Bradshaw (and Hendricks) is good at her job, which is selling the people of Little Big Bear on becoming home to an oil refinery. When she clashes with Jim at a town meeting to discuss the company’s plans, she cannily counters his concerns with folksy patter that would make Lyle Lanley proud. She and Northstream Oil, her employer, are the new arrivals, but she quickly positions Jim as the outsider.
Unfortunately, Hendricks isn’t given many more opportunities to razzle dazzle us in the first half of the season. She mostly acts as a dissenting voice to her employer’s machinations, which are executed by an official (Christopher Heyerdahl) who’s your garden-variety European henchman. Elizabeth isn’t the only female character underserved by the script; Jim’s wife and daughter, Angela and Anna, are relegated to victim roles for much of their screen time. Whenever it looks like they’re about to get more agency, the focus swings back to Jim, who’s in various stages of a bender. There are other flashes of wasted potential in Constable Denise Minahik’s (Sarah Podemski) storyline. As a First Nations person who left the reserve for Little Big Bear, her arc is especially fraught—she must reconcile her role as a Canadian police officer with tribal affairs. But like every other woman here, she gets stuck playing babysitter.
The biggest disappointments lie in how Tin Star destroys the very ecosystem it seems to be building. Early on, the show appears to be following in Justified’s footsteps, establishing the symbiotic relationship between a town’s industry and its people. The oil refinery would bring an influx of jobs and business—the migrant workers will need to eat, drink, and sleep somewhere—but the bust is obviously right on the heels of the boom for this town. Northstream will plunder the town’s resources, then pull up stake/oil rig when there’s nothing left. But once again, Joffé drops the thread before it gets anywhere, distracted by another shiny object or revenge-thriller reference. Though it has some lofty goals, the shine quickly comes off of Tin Star.