“I’ll bet you I can rob a casino,” Allie Fox tells his wife Margot midway through the first season of the Apple TV+ drama The Mosquito Coast. This is a mark both of how desperate their circumstances are and how highly Allie regards his ability to accomplish what others call the impossible. Margot, meanwhile, doesn’t so much as indulge him with an eye-roll, instead moving on to more practical solutions for their latest debacle.
Though no casinos are robbed over the course of these seven episodes of television, I wouldn’t put it past Mosquito Coast to give Allie a chance eventually. The show is far more enamored with his problem-solving skills than Margot is, and it’s also determined to tell its story as slowly as possible. A casino heist could easily take up a couple of episodes, if not an entire season.
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The series is adapted, somewhat, from Paul Theroux’s 1981 novel of the same name, which already had a relatively faithful translation in a 1986 film directed by Peter Weir and starring Harrison Ford. In the book and movie, Allie is a brilliant inventor fed up with American consumerism, who packs his wife and kids off to a tiny village in Central America where he will attempt to create a new, utopian society. The TV version, developed by Neil Cross (creator of Luther) and Tom Bissell, uses the book more as a jumping-off point than a strict outline.
Here, Allie (played by Leftovers star Justin Theroux, who is Paul’s nephew), Margot (Melissa George), and kids Dina (Logan Polish) and Charlie (Gabriel Bateman) live mostly off the grid in Northern California, where Allie works as a handyman at a factory farm while perfecting his latest invention: a machine that makes ice from fire, without requiring any electricity. This Allie, though, isn’t just a bitter, misunderstood genius, but a fugitive from justice who only decides to leave the country after federal agents (played by Kimberly Elise and James LeGros) get wise to his newest identity.
Cross and company have opted to treat their entire first season as a premise pilot, covering the family’s journey over the border and through parts of Mexico. This is an approach many dramas have taken in recent years, especially on streaming. But it usually feels less about creative necessity(*) than about getting as many seasons as possible out of a story that’s meant to be told in more compact form. (Like, say, a 117-minute movie?) HBO did this not too long ago with its Perry Mason reboot, which somehow failed to properly tell its hero’s origin story despite having eight episodes in which to do it; perhaps not coincidentally, Season Two will have new showrunners.
(*) A notable recent exception: Better Call Saul, which is arguably treating its entire series as a premise pilot for the character we met on Breaking Bad. For that matter, Breaking Bad Season One is more or less a premise pilot for the adventures of the drug lord Heisenberg. Between this trend and the one of nonlinear storytelling, there are days where it feels like Vince Gilligan was put on this earth to inspire other television writers to take all the wrong lessons from his work.
In theory, elongating the trip to the place that gives The Mosquito Coast its title can have benefits, like offering a deeper understanding of the four main characters and the messy dynamics of their family. But the pilot does too good a job of establishing everyone and how they get along for that to make sense. You only need one glimpse at the dewy gaze Charlie casts upon Allie to understand the degree of hero worship the kid feels for his father, for instance. And an early scene where Allie makes Margot join in on retelling the story of how they met to a frustrated Dina speaks volumes about how much oxygen Allie consumes in any room he enters. As Dina tells him early in the second episode, “We’re not your family, Dad! We’re your audience!”
Mostly, the season has Allie dragging the family through narrative quicksand, where each attempt to escape their latest predicament only sinks them in deeper. Some of these incidents, like a confrontation between the family and a group of border-patrolling vigilantes, are incredibly tense, but others seem obligatory. Allie tends to solve each problem in front of him using his improvised genius with machines, and the storytelling as a whole can’t help feeling mechanical, and built solely for the purpose of complicating itself. This is exhausting after a while, especially when presented with as little joy as Cross and his collaborators care to offer. Even superficially colorful characters like an unyielding Mexican drug cartel boss (Ofelia Medina) or her implacable American-born hitman (British actor Ian Hart in cowboy drag) are played with the utmost seriousness.
There’s also the matter of exactly what Allie and/or Margot did to run afoul of the government in the first place, which the show teases constantly without coming close to providing a concrete answer. The secret is meant to tantalize the audience — and, at times, cause new strife for the clan, because the kids have been kept in the dark and thus can be easily manipulated about what did or didn’t happen. But it’s a dangerous game, where the longer Mosquito Coast drags out the revelation, the more interesting the truth must be to live up to expectations that grow and grow with each time the question is asked. (See also: most of the mysteries of the island on Lost.)
But if you have to be stuck on a meandering, seemingly endless trek with a family of four, you could do a lot worse than the quartet of actors cast as the Foxes.
Allie Fox as a character predates Walter White by a quarter-century, but when you hire a familiar actor to play a brilliant but self-destructively stubborn iconoclast who turns into an outlaw, the comparisons become inevitable. Theroux is charismatic and prickly, though, in ways that feel quite different from what Bryan Cranston, or his legion of prestige TV imitators, have done in the past. Allie is insufferable, yet Theroux also makes him believable as someone who would engender such loyalty and, at times, affection from a wife and kids who would all have very good reasons to run screaming from him. George in many ways has the more difficult role, since Margot’s past and motivations are more hidden from us than Allie’s, yet she’s utterly convincing and commanding in the moments suggesting she might be the truly dominant half of the marriage. And where the kids on shows like this often exist solely to create problems for their parents, Polish and Bateman make Dina and Charlie feel fully-realized and sympathetic as they get pulled deeper into the mess their father and mother have made of their lives.
Between the performances and how beautiful everything looks (the first two episodes were directed by Rupert Wyatt, with cinematography by Alex Disenhof), the trip south isn’t wholly without its pleasures. But as with Perry Mason and the other shows that structure themselves this way, The Mosquito Coast mostly left me impatient for the show it’s eventually going to be, rather than the one it is at the moment.
When Allie tells Dina that every problem has a solution, she replies, “Not everything can be fixed.” In this case, the problem seems eminently fixable for Season Two, providing all involved are willing to get to the point already. Season One suggests that this journey isn’t compelling enough without the destination in sight. Maybe things will perk up if Allie gets to live out his casino-robbing dreams.
The first two episodes of The Mosquito Coast premiere April 30th on Apple TV+, with additional installments being released weekly. I’ve seen all seven episodes.
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