By Brian McIver
Television has never been better – or more competitive. With so many channels, streams and providers all promising the next big binge watch, there’s always got to be that one big headline hook to draw the audience in.
Whether it’s Meryl Streep making her TV debut, Hugh Grant vs Nicole Kidman, or a notorious soul-swapping twist, there’s got to be a big, attention-grabbing, USP. But if they want to make sure viewers hang around longer than the novelty factor of episode one, there needs to be a lot happening beyond that hook.
With HBO’s eagerly awaited new police drama Mare of Easttown, on Sky Atlantic in the UK, the main attraction is Kate Winslet’s return to the small screen for the first time in a decade, since she won Emmys and Golden Globes for the acclaimed mini series Mildred Pierce.
And yes, she’s as impressive as you’d expect in a meaty role as a put upon small town police detective, divorced grandma and stressed parent, who faces crisis upon crisis until her community is rocked by a terrible crime.
But the show has a lot more to it than just being a vehicle for a fantastic leading actor. In its opening hour, the tension and drama is slowly ratcheted up as her local Pennsylvania community is painted in all its grim and mundane colours, with Winslet’s flawed local hero making her way through a very, very long day.
From early morning peeping toms to small time burglary and a new police recruit afraid of the sight of blood, Winslet’s Mare Sheehan initially seems like every local cop we’ve met many times before – knowing who to chase down the street and who to clip round the ear with a ticking off, as she keeps the peace. Although now a detective, she’s the kind of officer that pensioners phone with complaints because they know she’ll get things done for them.
But she’s not renowned as a hero for her police work, instead she’s the poster girl for parochial achievement – and knows that all too well – as a high school state basketball championship hero lauded in a special 25th anniversary reunion celebration, which she’d hoped would be the most traumatic event of her day. Even that gathering though is marred by the spectre of the horrific crimes she’s investigated in the past. A missing girl case hangs over not just her career, but over her friendships and family.
As we find out more about her beat, we realise that just about the whole population of Easttown is connected, with either blood ties or just general nosiness meaning everyone is involved in everyone else’s business.
As you’d expect from a titular police hero in a television series, Mare’s personal life is a mess. But another reason this excellent new show stands out is that she’s more than just another of the troubled clones we’ve seen hitting a bottle and facing issues with an ex. It’s nuanced, layered and has higher stakes, with just about everyone in her extended household in dire need of her help – but also doing their very best to drive her mad.
With the sense of foreboding building steadily across the first hour, you just know something terrible is in the post, but there’s a satisfyingly broad selection of potential victims and suspects in a town which must stake a claim for being the Teen Mom capital of America.
Winslet is in stunning form as the put upon but never downtrodden cop and matriarch, and it’s a role which suits her amazing ability to simultaneously dominate the screen with a character, but also generously make space for the surrounding cast to shine and take centre stage at the right time. A great supporting Mare of Easttown cast includes the likes of Guy Pearce as an enigmatic writer, the Aussie actor returning to Winslet’s TV side after they’d worked together in Mildred Pierce all those years ago.
X-Men’s Evan Peters, last seen causing quick chaos in WandaVision, also shines as a fellow detective, while staple character actors like The Office’s David Denman and Watchmen’s Jean Smart help create a brilliant sense of the world around Winslet’s stressed out Mare. But it’s the young women in the show, particularly Cailee Spaeny as single mum against the world Erin, and Spider-Man Far From Home’s Angourie Rice as Mare’s rebellious daughter Siobhan, who really shine.
The pilot episode, titled Miss Lady Hawk Herself, is a masterclass in character and world building for the mystery that’s about to unfold. It does feel in some moments like its taking a bit too long to get into gear, but once the pieces are in place, there’s a fantastic final scene setting up all kinds of potential twists and turns and recriminations as the series continues, as Mare’s town looks set to fall apart even more dramatically than her fractured family life.
Directed by Craig Zobel, best known for shows like Wesworld and The Leftovers – and movies like The Hunt – and written by Brad Ingelsby, of Run All Night and The Way Back success, this is high end telly at its best, packed with intrigue, suspicion, horror and reluctant heroics.
Mare of Easttown will air on Sky Atlantic and NOW on Monday 19th April.