Maura Tierney and Jeff Daniels in Showtime's American Rust
Restless in the Rust Belt
American Rust — starring Jeff Daniels and Maura Tierney — reveals troubled lives among those who stayed behind.
When the steel mills closed, the jobs went with them.
The people who stayed are tough or out of choices or both. Such characters populate Buell, the fictional Pennsylvania community where Showtime's American Rust is set in the recent past.
"It is a portrait of a small town," says creator Dan Futterman, who's also the showrunner and an executive producer, "and it's told through the prism of a violent crime. How does it ripple through each of the characters?"
The nine-episode series, which premiered September 12, is based on the 2009 novel American Rust, which Jeff Daniels (also an executive producer) brought to Futterman. "I really do love Philipp Meyer's book," Futterman says. "It felt like very firm ground to base the series on, as well as fertile ground to grow other storylines."
Daniels stars as Del Harris, Buell's police chief, who's in love with Grace Poe, played by Maura Tierney. Estranged from her deadbeat husband, Grace tries to get by, sewing bridal gowns. But she may soon lose her home, a trailer on the edge of town.
Her son, Billy (Alex Neustaedter), was a high-school football star, but those glory days are well behind him. He's feckless; his mind fogged by beer, his potential clouded by a criminal record. But things get only more complicated.
"Billy becomes embroiled in what may be a capital crime," Futterman says. "The question is: how far is Del willing to go to protect him?"
Billy's one true friend, Isaac (David Alvarez), is also saddled with a painful past and a bleak present. His mother committed suicide, and he cares for his disabled father while yearning for escape. He hopes his perfect SAT score will get him into Caltech. His sister, Lee (Julia Mayorga) — equally bright — has already decamped to Yale. Recent events, though, may summon her home.
American Rust examines that dynamic that occurs when people experience the greater world and then return home. How do they perceive their town? And how do their neighbors see them?
A theme that has captivated Futterman since his first script, Capote, is "how you care for — or even love someone — while using them at the same time." He hopes he will have a second season to explore this dichotomy.
"We leave this season with a lot of open-ended stories," he says. "To get to flip things and tell these characters' stories from a different point of view — from where they might have been in control of a situation to now being controlled by a situation — it would be thrilling to be able to write that."
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 9, 2021