In Sky Atlantic’s nihilistic new series ‘Tin Star’, shocking events send the recently-appointed sheriff of a small Canadian town into a spiral of relapse, revenge, and recrimination.
Karl Rove, Republican strategist and former advisor to George W. Bush, was once famously quoted as saying “We’re an empire. When we act, we create our own reality.” Perhaps the same thinking has been co-opted over time by the sleepy town of Little Big Bear, in the shadow of the Rocky Mountains.
Tin Star; season one, ten episodes, USA/UK 2017. Our Rating: ★★★★/5
The empire in this example is a shadowy Big Oil corporation breathing down the necks of the townspeople with the promise of new investment, and new hope. The blue-collar actors of Little Big Bear – barkeepers, store owners, farmers, and a number of hapless podunk deadbeats – are far off the beaten track, and the tourism well is drying up. Sold on the belief that the massive influx of migrant workers will prop up the economy during the harsher months and aid the ailing local infrastructure, we see reality for what it truly is: they’re damned if they like it and damned if they do not. Selling camouflaged zero-sum ideas and brand awareness on behalf of North Stream Oil is Elizabeth Bradshaw (Christina Hendricks), a powerfully persuasive corporate liaison with a personal agenda yet to be revealed.
The excellent opening episode of ‘Tin Star‘ – imagine A History of Violence meets Northern Exposure – goes to great and often spectacular lengths to demonstrate the scale and scope of the town’s isolation from the rest of the world. Boasting an exquisite opening helicopter shot of the seemingly limitless forests and (rocky) mountains that could generously be described as Shining-esque, Tin Star‘s burgeoning sense of unease is boosted by the microcosmic locale of Little Big Bear and its vast glacial surroundings, wide open and deeply claustrophobic at the same time.
Flanked by the watchful indigenous First Nations, the town is quickly and all-too-easily corrupted by the overbearing influence of the North Stream Oil refinery, and left to flirt with lawlessness by its recently-appointed sheriff Jim Worth (Tim Roth). Following life-changing events early in the series, he and his family find themselves the target of mounting recriminations from an emerging criminal network that has begun to take hold of Little Big Bear.
‘Tin Star’ begins in shocking fashion, but the emotional momentum of these events only carry it so far. By episodes three and four, the refreshingly internecine revenge tale involving Tin Star’s central characters begins to emerge, but one or two weaker mid-series episodes exhaust both the narrative and viewers’ sympathy; the impact of the original instigating event is weakened, and Jim Worth and his beleaguered family begin to make plot-breaking decisions that will leave you either rolling your eyes, or reaching for the remote.
Where in other series, we might be readying for a dramatic denouement, Tin Star seems to revel in slowing down and deliberating; repercussions feel hollow and undeserved, and revenge is repositioned as pointless. Good intentions don’t matter. Facts are unimpeachable. Mid-season, characters begin to lose their way, and Tin Star sets down a path towards nihilistic rampage.
For the viewer, though, the experience of watching a fire go out at the point you most want to see it explode – engulfing everyone within catching distance – will be disconcerting and even off-putting. In a sense, that’s part of Tin Star‘s weird charm: for better or worse, you never really know what’s coming next. Personified by philosophical hitmen, regressive drunk cops, one-dimensional biker gangs and stoic reservationists, Little Big Bear is an empire of actors, and they create their own damned reality.
By episodes seven and eight, Tin Star leans on the nuance of Tim Roth and Christina Hendricks to do the heavy lifting, and they take the wavering story on their respective backs. By the magical power of being utterly watchable, you’ll deal with it, figure out the details, and thank them later.
Tin Star is beautiful at times – shocking, too – and frustratingly close to special. Pacing issues along the way and a dubious blackout ending detract from an otherwise intriguing slow-burner, full of memorable performances to boot.
All ten episodes of Tin Star are now available on DVD, blu-ray and on-demand. The series has been renewed by Sky Atlantic.