Neil Cross made his reputation with Luther, a copper caper starring Idris Elba and distinguished by storylines of dizzying ludicrousness. But there is little of Luther’s pulpy charm in his Apple TV+ adaptation of Paul Theroux's meditative 1981 bestseller, The Mosquito Coast.
One issue is that it’s barely an adaptation at all. Cross has essentially ditched Theroux’s storyline and kept only the name and the literary kudos. Presumably the author isn’t too miffed, as he is listed as an executive producer. Rather than Paul Theroux, the big influence on this glum and clichéd thriller is Walter White. Breaking Bad’s “difficult man” anti-hero has become the TV stereotype to rule them all, spawning legions of off-White imitators.
Cross has decided we need another. That becomes obvious the moment we are introduced to glowering conspiracy freak Allie Fox, played with a chiselled-in scowl by Justin Theroux (Paul’s nephew and documentarian Louis’s cousin).
It is massively derivative. Once again, a dad-next-door has been driven around the twist by the grim realisation that modern life is essentially a huge pain in the behind. Back in the day he would have dealt with this by nipping to the pub or staying up late watching a war movie. But in the land of prestige television only a scorched earth response will suffice.
The Mosquito Coast refers to a dense jungle province of Honduras, to which Allie drags his family in a bid to escape America and the scourge of unchecked consumerism, a reliable electricity supply, sanitation etc. Or at least that’s what he does in the novel (and in Peter Weir’s 1986 Harrison Ford-starring movie). But Cross is in no immediate hurry to leave Southern California. This is where Allie and family live off-grid yet always glancing over their shoulders for the inevitable squall of police sirens.
Quite why the flaky Foxes are fleeing the authorities is not immediately explained. It clearly has at least something to do with suspicion of government and of technology (they’d love being the stars of a glossy Apple TV+ show). Whatever their problem it’s hard to empathise.
That is largely down to Theroux. In the lynchpin role of Allie, he can’t make up his mind whether or not he wants us to like the character. Wife Margot (Melissa George) is terrified of him, keeping secret the fact she is calling her mother from a payphones. He also bullies daughter Dina (Logan Polish) after finding her talking to her boyfriend on a mobile phone. The objection is less the boyfriend than the phone. Only son Charlie (Gabriel Bateman) – the narrator in Theroux’s novel – sees him in a heroic light.
Among the few ways in which the series has stayed faithful to the book is in its meditative pacing. The story plods forward and often threatens to shudder to a standstill. There are endless shots of Theroux, who has signalled his commitment to the project by cultivating a Noel Edmonds-style pointy beard, looking exasperated in the Southern Californian heat (in reality the heat of Mexico, where the show was filmed). And as a duo of government agents catch up with him, he seems not so much terrified as peeved. They’ve truly ruined his day.
The crotchetiness continues even when Allie’s not on screen. Theroux’s glowering is supplemented by sequences in which his family mooch around their dimly-lit house (the bank’s about to foreclose) looking vaguely annoyed at the state of world. After sitting through the first few episodes of Breaking Bland – a more honest title than The Mosquito Coast – the viewer will know exactly how they feel.