I’ll grant Apple TV+’s Mosquito Coast this: There’s an expansive nothingness to it, a kind of smooth glassiness, that makes the show incredibly easy to throw on while you’re not really paying attention. I’ve come to regard the construction of so-called “ambient TV” as a kind of skill, and it is rather deft to make a prestigey thriller about a family on the run without ever explaining in any detail why they are fleeing the authorities. In this loose adaptation of Paul Theroux’s The Mosquito Coast premiering April 30, Justin Theroux (Paul’s nephew!) plays Allie Fox, a slippery inventor with strong beliefs about America’s flaws—to the point where his ideology has swept his wife (Melissa George) and two children into a life of perpetual motion.
In a sweep of seven episodes that are remarkably light on detail, the Fox family departs their home in Southern California and flees across the border to Mexico City, tangling with coyotes and cartels in an effort to elude capture. In a commitment to vibes and vibes only, Mosquito Coast goes big on gorgeous atmospherics; you can practically feel the heat of the desert and smell the fruit on display in the street market. Theroux is particularly good at making the most of the wide berth the script gives the actors—he can fill in the gaps with his thoughtful portrait of Allie, playing up his delusions at some moments and his charismatic, chameleonic skill for getting out of trouble in others.
But even his absorbing performance can’t make Mosquito Coast make sense. The show only has one tension: whether Allie can keep up his illusions for another day. Other questions, such as whether his ideology makes sense or if he is a good father and partner, are gestured at but ultimately ignored. This is frustrating, because those questions were a lot more important to me than the smoke and mirrors show that is the Allie Fox Hand-Waving Experience—which results in several dead bodies and two young teens exposed to life-altering trauma.
Perhaps it would be worth examining his actions in the context of his beliefs, but here, too, it’s striking how little the show has to say. Ostensibly, Allie’s feelings about America and capitalism are what began this journey. But Mosquito Coast refrains from either disagreeing with him or letting him foment his radicalism. Instead he’s just unpredictable, domineering, and egocentric, an awful person to be stuck with for any length of time, let alone one’s entire life. And even here—on this fairly basic question of “does your protagonist suck”—Mosquito Coast doesn’t have an opinion. It has scenery; it has boats; it has people running around with guns. (No mosquitoes, though, and only one coast, which I thought was a little bit of a letdown.) But it leaves the essential question of the central character open to debate.
With its family on the run, drug cartel drama, father with questionable morals, and rebellious daughter (Logan Polish), Mosquito Coast fits into the cookie-cutter shape of so many earlier shows; Ozark seems to have been a significant influence. Allie’s the villain, especially for what he does to his young son Charlie (Gabriel Bateman), who worships his father to the point of self-destruction. But Mosquito Coast presents him a little too sympathetically, as a stressed-out dad who is just trying not to crack under the pressure of keeping his family together. Allie is in a hell of his own making, but the show takes pains to obscure that truth.
Mosquito Coast’s biggest problem may be that the show doesn’t really have enough story for seven episodes. The first few are so vibes-heavy because there’s nothing else to do; the finale delivers enough character work to justify an hour of story—maybe two. Its teasing references to family secrets seem, ultimately, like an effort to feign having more ideas than it does.
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