This review originally published April 14, 2021
There’s always something so interesting about an “adaptation” of a novel that doesn’t really adhere to the source material. Paul Theroux’s book The Mosquito Coast, and the subsequent 1986 film starring Harrison Ford and Helen Mirren, are about an idealistic inventor named Allie Fox who moves his family from the U.S. to the Mosquito Coast of Honduras to escape American consumer culture. Disaster ensues, and it’s almost completely due to Allie’s egotism. In the new Apple TV+ version of The Mosquito Coast, I grant you that the character is still named Allie Fox, and he’s an inventor, and he has a family that will have to trudge along on his madcap adventures. Everything else, through five episodes, seems quite different. This Allie Fox is being hunted by the American authorities for an unknown crime, and the general trajectory—spoiler alert, I guess?—is that he’s going to live a life of crime on the lam.
My question, then, is a simple one: Why is this called The Mosquito Coast? It’s not an adaptation of the novel or the movie; not really. I suppose I could understand it from a financial angle if that title brought significant clout and a big audience, but as talented a writer as Paul Theroux is—I swear I don’t mean this as an insult—we’re 35 years away from the publication of that book, and it’s not remotely a cultural touchstone with a prestige TV audience. I’m sure there are a thousand creative decisions standing between my question and any kind of sensical answer, but really, this is not hugely different from someone writing a series called The Sun Also Rises, and it’s in Spain and sometimes you see a matador, but it’s mostly about zombies.
I don’t suppose Apple can pivot at this late stage, but if they’re looking for a new title, I have an idea: Breaking Badder. Or Breaking Worse, if you’re a stickler.
Why not? This is extremely inside the Breaking Bad genre, right down to the desert setting of the first season, and I’m here to tell you that it’s not a terrible show. If that sounds like damning with faint praise, then yes, that’s somewhat my intention, but I’m serious when I say that there are worse things on this planet than a decent Breaking Bad knock-off starring Justin Theroux. I will even venture a guess that some people are going to really love this show, even though I feel secure in saying it’s not going to resonate on that same level.
I should also admit that calling a Justin Theroux vehicle mediocre feels strange. Here, as Allie Fox, he’s an arresting presence as always, completely captivating every time he’s on screen, and perhaps the one thing keeping the show from teetering into below-average territory. He’s one of those performers from whom you can’t look away, and whose preternatural ability to draw the viewer in makes you feel inadequate when you try to convey the idea in writing that yes, holy God, this guy is a really damn good actor. It’s a great role for him, because like Kevin Garvey in The Leftovers, there is simultaneously something very confident and assured about Allie Fox, while just beneath surface, chaos and catastrophe loom. You take one look at him, you watch him speak, and you think, “this man is completely dangerous, but I’m not sure anyone can resist him.”
(If you’ve wondered about the similarity in last names, two points for observation: Justin Theroux is Paul Theroux’s nephew, both are executive producers on the show, and it probably goes a long way to explaining the Mosquito Coast tie-in.)
Aside from Theroux, it’s one of those shows where nothing is really bad, but nothing is quite spectacular either. It’s slickly made and the acting is fine… even though, unlike the resplendent cast from The Leftovers, everyone here pales to Theroux. The story suffers from the necessary unreality that must accompany a premise that starts out a little bit preposterous, and becomes even more so as it’s forced to outdo itself in order sustain dramatic momentum. I call this “Sons of Anarchy Syndrome,” where even a good show, when the main character can’t die and the narrative propulsion depends on the main characters getting out of increasingly sticky jams in increasingly spectacular ways, eventually must become a parody of itself. This also happened to Breaking Bad, and you can already start to see it here.
Which is a shame, because the tone of the show at the start has a certain dignified quality to it, with high production values, and you’re briefly deceived that this is a humanistic, character-based show. Soon, though, people are running through homeless encampments and ramming trucks into each other and getting into shootouts in the desert and putting lots of aluminum foil where it doesn’t belong. Even Allie succumbs to the speedy ramp-up; within a few episodes, he’s just a sociopathic MacGyver, and you mostly just get annoyed at his wife Margot (Melissa George) for lacking the courage to take her kids away from an obviously deranged maniac.
I can only speak for myself, but I don’t have the patience for this anymore. At least Breaking Bad had the decency to make Walter White a tame family man before he went gonzo. Allie Fox starts as a criminal of some sort, but we don’t learn that piece of backstory for an agonizingly long time, and our frustration parallels that of his children, who keep asking for details and get vague answers that they accept while the rest of us are screaming: “INSIST! INSIST ON AN ANSWER!” At one point, they even do the thing where we’re about to find out the truth, and then a maid knocks on a door and it all gets interrupted. This would be an annoying trope under the best circumstances, but in Episode 4, it’s unforgivable. Still, it’s thematically appropriate for Fox’s past to remain obscured several episodes past the point when we stop caring; a derivative show that doesn’t quite know its own identity can’t be asked to reveal much about its characters.
The Mosquito Coast premieres Friday, April 30th on Apple TV+
Shane Ryan is a writer and editor. You can find more of his writing and podcasting at Apocalypse Sports, and follow him on Twitter here .
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