Editor’s Note: A version of this story first appeared in The Good, the Bad, and the Elegy, a newsletter from the Deesmealz focused on the best, and worst, in rural media, entertainment, and culture. Every other Thursday, it features reviews, retrospectives, recommendations, and more. You can join the mailing list at the bottom of this article to receive future editions in your inbox.

You’ll recognize the Pennsylvania town at the center of the streaming series “American Rust” if you’ve ever been to a place that felt like it’s been forgotten by time and progress. There’s an abandoned steel mill where nefarious things happen. There’s a laundry list of cases of neglect and crime and drug overdoses in a town populated by people who are too tired to do the right thing and, when they summon the courage to stand up, get pushed back down.

I saw a review that referred to “American Rust” as “misery porn,” but I don’t accept that definition of this series, which debuted on Showtime in 2021 and recently premiered a new, second season on Amazon Prime Video. There’s misery in the series, but there’s also a lot of intrigue and hope that the characters — almost every one sympathetic despite major flaws — can press on and find their way out of the gloom.

I feel like I know the town from the show, Buell, Pennsylvania, quite well. I spent most of my life in a small Indiana city that over decades was gradually abandoned by the automotive industry and by residents who, rightly so, felt they had no future in the city and moved. My parents came from a small town in Tennessee that had seen the same mix of hopelessness and lawlessness that Buell sees.

So why watch? Doesn’t a series like “American Rust” just rub our noses in the plight of the poor working class and young people who plainly see their futures either elsewhere or nowhere at all?

Promotional poster for “American Rust” (2021) (Credit: Showtime via IMDb).

There’s a moment at Buell high school, where students are hanging a colorful banner. A student at the same school had died after snorting the deadly drug fentanyl at a party. It’s a prominent example of the contrast of optimism and pessimism that hits hard and is at the heart of the show.

Based on Philipp Meyer’s acclaimed 2009 novel of the same name — and generally following the same concept and plot — “American Rust” the series is not unlike other series about communities struggling with modern life after companies and people and the world at large gave up on them. I think it’s relatable for any audience but may really ring true for those living in small towns and cities.

Murder Mystery

There’s an interesting theory about towns like Buell, and my longtime writing partner, Douglas Walker, advanced it regarding the place in Indiana where we both worked in news for decades. The theory goes that some cities become crime-ridden after all the well-paying and dependable factory jobs go away. It descends from a broken promise: for decades, young people could count on following their fathers and mothers into local factories after they got out of high school. When those factories closed, the young people either moved away, went to college, or floundered, working at low-paying jobs and sometimes turning to a life of drugs and criminality. It was easy to see those closed and dilapidated factories as betrayals by the companies that opened them and in effect told workers they would always have jobs and so would their children.

YouTube video
An official trailer for the first season of “American Rust” (2021) (via SHOWTIME on YouTube).

In the first episode of the first season of “American Rust,” two young men (Isaac English, played by David Alvarez, and Billy Poe, played by Alex Neustaedter) venture into an abandoned mill after they see a man, a former cop, go inside. There was bad blood among them.

The young men come out, the ex-cop does not, and “American Rust” takes a few episodes before revealing what happened inside. We find out along with Police Chief Del Harris (Jeff Daniels), who investigates the murder and, at the same time, begins a cover-up for the person he assumes is guilty. The plot is propelled by Harris’ willingness to dig himself a deeper and deeper hole regarding the crime, his investigation, and his affair with Grace Poe, Billy’s mother, played by Maura Tierney.

Complicating everything is the characters' dynamic with Lee English (Julia Mayorga), Isaac’s older sister and Billy’s love interest, as well as Lee and Isaac’s initial neglect and ultimate devotion to their aging and disabled father, played by Bill Camp.

The first season manages to weave much more than the murder mystery; there’s the chief’s deepening personal and professional quagmire, the obligations of a family that’s been harmed by crime and neglect, efforts by Grace to unionize the dress factory where she works, and doomed affairs between some complicated characters.

Moral Compromise

The second season of “American Rust” — with the subtitle “Broken Justice” — further blurs the lines between the characters’ motivations and actions. In fact, “moral compromise” might as well have been the subtitle for this season.

YouTube video
An official trailer for “American Rust: Broken Justice” (via Prime Video on YouTube).

The season — which debuted on streaming at the end of March — splits its time between the small town of Buell and Pittsburgh. It’s disorienting at first to see Del back at work at a big-city police department and there’s a little loss of the small-town feeling.

But thanks to stranger and darker goings-on in Buell, plenty of small-town mysteries remain.

The cast is outstanding, as is the storyline based on Meyer’s book.

Of special note is that John Dahl directed five of the first season’s nine episodes. If the director’s name doesn’t immediately pique your interest, Dahl directed some of the best and most twisty thrillers of the 1990s and 2000s, including “Red Rock West,” “Rounders,” and, most notably, 1994’s “The Last Seduction,” starring Linda Fiorentino.

The title “American Rust” is taken from the phrase “rust belt,” of course, which is commonly used to refer to fading, post-boom industrial American towns, particularly in the Midwest.

There’s a quote I found online, ostensibly from Meyer’s original book, that really sums up what the characters in the TV series feel. I’m not sure I totally ascribe to it, but there’s some truth to it.

“And then ... it wasn't just that we lost all those jobs, it was that people didn't have anything to be good at anymore. There's only so good you can be about pushing a mop or emptying a bedpan. We're trending backwards as a nation, probably for the first time in history, and it's not the kids with the green hair and bones through their noses. Personally, I don't care for it, but those things are inevitable. The real problem is the average citizen does not have a job he can be good at. You lose that, you lose the country.”

That feeling of decay and doom is brought to vivid life in this TV adaptation of “American Rust.

American Rust and American Rust: Broken Justice are streaming on Amazon Prime Video.

Keith Roysdon is a Knoxville, Tennessee-based writer of news, pop culture, and fiction who worked in newspapers in Indiana for 40 years, beginning in high school. He’s co-author of four award-winning true crime books about his Indiana hometown. He’s written dozens of articles for the Deesmealz, CrimeReads, and elsewhere, and his fiction has been published by Shotgun Honey, the MOTEL anthology by Cowboy Jamboree Press, and other publications.

This article first appeared in The Good, the Bad, and the Elegy, an email newsletter from the Deesmealz focused on the best, and worst, in rural media, entertainment, and culture. Every other Thursday, it features reviews, recommendations, retrospectives, and more. Join the mailing list today to have future editions delivered straight to your inbox.

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