Season 2 of HBO's crime classic The Wire was that great show's most polarizing season. That chapter told the story of the decline of Baltimore's working class through the lens of the people unloading ships in the city's harbor. It was driven by Frank Sobotka (Chris Bauer), a union boss who did some unsavory things to keep his guys employed, and his nephew Nick (Pablo Schreiber), whose chance of a better life got destroyed by his and his uncle's bad but understandable choices. In the background, the Baltimore Police Department continued its investigation into the Barksdale drug gang. Fans were split on the season because some people were so enraptured by the Barksdale investigation, which was the meat of Season 1, that they found the dock stuff to be intrusive and comparatively uninteresting, while others thought that broadening the scope of the show to include the docks and show the scope of criminal enterprise in the city made it even better.
Why are we talking about The Wire in a review for CBS All Access' new drama One Dollar? Because it is so similar to Season 2 of The Wire that it will bring that old argument up again. Set in fictional Braden, Pennsylvania, and shot in and around Pittsburgh, creator Jason Mosberg's show uses a murder investigation as a way to explore the effects of the decline of the steel industry in the region. But it's much less interested in solving the crime than it is in building a sense of place, which may frustrate plot-hungry viewers. However, if you're willing to sit back and think about race, gentrification, addiction, poverty and post-industrialization, One Dollar is rich.
One Dollar — which has the gimmick of following around a dollar bill and whichever character possesses it at the time — even has its own Frank Sobotka in Bud Carl, played by ubiquitous character actor John Carroll Lynch doing a wild Pittsburgh accent. Carl is the third-generation owner of Braden's steel mill and is barely holding on. And when the blood of seven different people is found at the mill, he has to take desperate measures to protect his business and his employees. His Nick Sobotka is his "son" Garrett Drimmer, a steelworker and single father played with Pinkmanian vulnerability by Phillip Ettinger, who gives the kind of performance that's one step away from a star-making breakout.
The investigation angle is handled by Nathaniel Martello-White as a private detective seeking redemption, Níke Uche Kadri as an ambitious rookie cop and Christopher Denham as Braden's chief of police. They get a lot of screen time, but the investigation doesn't seem to interest the writers much, and the crime drama beats the show hits are uninteresting. It doles out developments in the case so slowly that it's easy to forget what's even going on.
They writers are much more interested in the vignettes that build out the town. As the titular dollar bill changes hands, the show tells its holder's story, which leads to standout episodes that follow peripheral characters like an elementary school teacher played by Deirdre O'Connell who has a student she can't get to behave and a supermarket cashier played by Aleksa Palladino whose father has dementia. These smaller side stories give the show an indie movie-like texture about people trying to make it in America. They're sort of like short films within the bigger show, and they contain much of the show's best writing and acting. They would be better if they didn't have the unnecessary dollar bill gimmick connecting them all, but it's not that distracting.
What is distracting is the yellow tint the show was given in post-production. It's certainly a distinctive bold choice that breaks dramatically from the blue-gray color palette shows like this usually use, but it's too bold for the story One Dollar is telling. It covers up the gritty beauty of post-industrial landscape in which it's shot. But the location shooting gives the show an authenticity that's impossible to fake. Every shot of a house with dirty vinyl siding or McMansion or lush green vegetation overtaking a piece of neglected infrastructure feels very intentional.
One Dollar is trying to do a lot of different things, and it's better at the harder things, like building a world that feels real. It's not as good as The Wire Season 2, but what is?
One Dollar premieres Aug. 30 on CBS All Access, with new episodes dropping on Thursdays.
(Full disclosure: TV Guide is owned by CBS.)