No one uses cash anymore.
We buy coffee from an app on our phone. (I refer to the Dunkin’ Donuts app as “life-changing” and I’m only half-joking). We pay people back via Venmo and PayPal. We charge things via our readily available credit cards.
So, just the fact that the new CBS All Access drama One Dollar is centered on a one-dollar bill that moves through the small steel town of Braden, Pennsylvania immediately provides the socioeconomic context for the series. This is a once-robust town which has felt the economic bust of the declining steel industry.
The dollar first makes its way to Garrett Drimmer (Philip Ettinger), a single dad living paycheck to paycheck, struggling to pay his daughter’s day care provider and always hoping for overtime at the mill. In the middle of the night, Garrett gets a mysterious phone call from mill owner Bud Carl (John Caroll Lynch) and rushes to help him. The next morning, the blood, but not the bodies, of seven victims is found at the mill. What do Garrett and Bud know and how are they involved?
This central mystery opens up the town of Braden. Police chief Peter Trask (Christopher Denham) is a meticulous detective, doing everything by the book—which often impedes his investigation. Everyone in town, from the wives who suspects their husbands of cheating to the business developer who wants dirt on a competitor, hire former detective turned private investigator Jake Noveer (Nathaniel Martello-White). Wealthy teen Dannie Furlbee (Kirrilee Berger) becomes an inadvertent witness to the aftermath of the crime.
It’s impossible to discuss the series without discussing the accents, which are, to put it mildly, odd. Words like “whole” and “home” and “sorry” are pronounced funny. At first I thought it was maybe a Canadian accent. But the series is filmed in Pittsburgh and I think the actors are trying for a Pennsylvanian accent. But it’s kind of like when TV series and movies try for a Boston accent and end up sounding like an exaggerated version of a Kennedy: It’s distracting, especially since not all the actors do it. (You can’t even assume it’s supposed to be a class thing, with the lower-income characters having an accent and the upper-income ones not having one). It’s jarring, and pulled me out of the story. If I have to pause my screener to re-confirm where the series is set, that’s not good.
I always find it peculiar that we often see the same actors again and again on TV series when we know there are many struggling to break into the industry. So I truly appreciated that One Dollar introduces so much new talent. Yes, Lynch is a familiar face, and stellar TV regulars Jeff Perry, Greg Germann and Tony winner Leslie Odom, Jr. have intriguing recurring roles. Ettinger was less well known to me, and is fantastic as the jittery, socially awkward dad who is constantly trying to do right but always making bad choices. As the sleep deprived private investigator loathed by his former colleagues, Martello-White’s determination and simultaneous exhaustion are palpable. Nike Uche Kadri is particularly affecting as a rookie police officer committed to her job even as she makes mistakes. And musician Sturgill Simpson is terrific, making his acting debut as a quasi-Robin Hood who steals from the rich and sells to the poor.
The gimmick of the dollar passing hands and the mystery of the murders isn’t unnecessary, exactly, but it’s definitely secondary to the deep-rooted character studies the show explores. The third episode, which focuses on Carol Seerveld (Deirdre O’Connell), a beloved, long-time elementary school teacher who commits a transgression she’s unable to forgive herself for, is particularly touching. As is the fourth episode, about grocery store cashier Chelsea Wyler (Aleksa Palladino), who must make the difficult decision about whether to place her estranged father (Jeff Perry) in a nursing home. These smaller stories, which get to the heart of human nature and the daily struggles we all face, provide the compelling reasons to keep watching.
The problem for CBS All Access remains the same: Is One Dollar enough to pay $6/month for the streaming service? Unfortunately, it’s not. It’s a solid, albeit flawed, series—and you can find plenty of those without paying more money. After all, every dollar counts.
One Dollar premieres today on CBS All Access, with a new episode available each Thursday.
Amy Amatangelo, the TV Gal®, is a Boston-based freelance writer, a member of the Television Critics Association and the Assistant TV Editor for Paste. She wasn’t allowed to watch much TV as a child and now her parents have to live with this as her career. You can follow her on Twitter (@AmyTVGal) or her blog .