It was a particularly strong first quarter on the TV front. Multiple notable new series, some brilliant and some original and eccentric. What unfolds this weekend is another little masterpiece of storytelling. It features a grandmother as the central figure; she’s a police detective in small-town America, but it is so, so much more than conventional crime drama.
Mare of Easttown (starts Sunday, 10 p.m., HBO/Crave) features Kate Winslet as the grandma-detective and that tells you a lot. Winslet chooses her roles very carefully and she would not be playing Mare Sheehan, a detective in a distressed, opioid-depressed Pennsylvania town, if it weren’t a mini-series with meaning and integrity.
Winslet is superb here, playing a figure so ordinary and utterly lacking in glamour that you feel you know her, down to her aching bones. We meet Mare on an ordinary day in this very unremarkable town. She responds to a call from a woman who says some guy was staring from outside as her daughter got undressed for bed. She spots a local guy, an addict who probably just robbed somebody. As she gives half-hearted chase, she turns her ankle and hobbles on. She gets the guy a bed in a shelter and moves on.
At home she joshes wearily with her mother (Jean Smart), has a prickly conversation with her daughter Siobhan (Angourie Rice) and puts some effort into caring for her grandson, 4-year-old Drew (Izzy King), a kid with problems. Later she goes to a local bar with old friends and drinks a Rolling Rock with a shot of Jameson. She’s tired, mostly.
What hovers over Mare is the disappearance, a year earlier, of a teenage girl, the daughter of Mare’s old friend from high school, when they were both on a championship-winning basketball team. The missing girl’s mom, Dawn (Enid Graham), goes on TV regularly to complain about police inaction. As Mare sees it, the missing girl was an addict, occasional sex worker and she’s not surprised there was no trace of her. Then, at the end of Episode 1, a different teenage girl, whom the viewer has come to know, is found murdered.
And so begins a criminal case, a search for clues and the elimination of multiple suspects. It’s formidably well-crafted, this mystery, but it’s not the real point of Mare of Easttown. It’s an intricate, intimate portrait of a town and community and in this place where there’s a pervasive sense of despondency. That is, the best of life here is about forlornly finding joy, pleasure, or dreaming of escape from this town destroyed by opioids, filled with teenage pregnancy and older people brought low by illness they cannot afford to treat. The mystery – a missing girl and a murdered girl – seems to involve the entire town and solving it lands on Mare’s strong but tired shoulders.
The seven-part series (all episodes written by Brad Ingelsby, directed by Craig Zobel) has been compared, in tone and dynamics to the British series Happy Valley, and that’s fair – it’s a fully rounded portrait of a town, with a female figure at its centre. And Winslet holds it all together with a quietly commanding, note-perfect performance. In one scene Mare’s teen daughter snaps, “This isn’t about you, Mare. Not everything is.” But she’s wrong – it is all about Mare and Kate Winslet.