In a small Pennsylvania town, hard-bitten detective Mare Sheehan (Kate Winslet) is under pressure for not solving the disappearance of a teenage girl, rowing with her mother (Jean Smart), trying to date and fighting a custody battle for her grandson (Izzy King). To compound matters, a dead body has been found in a creek.
The big draw of Mare Of Easttown is watching Kate Winslet in her first major TV role (playing Suzanne in Casualty in 1993 doesn’t count) and she doesn’t disappoint. Brad Ingelsby’s drama spins many plates — it’s a murder mystery, a family drama, a small-town ensemble piece — but, thanks to Winslet’s skill and commitment, it works best as a character study of a woman whose traumatic past is permeating her present at the worst possible moment. Mare Of Easttown doesn’t always grip, but Winslet, who also executive produced, always makes it watchable.
She plays Mare, a hard-vaping, generally embittered detective in a tight-knit Pennsylvania town who was once fêted for making a shot in a basketball game 25 years ago and has had little to celebrate since (Ingelsby also wrote Ben Affleck drama Finding The Way Back, another story about the faded glories of high-school hoop-players). Known by everyone in the community, her work life is over-shadowed by the disappearance of teenager Katie Bailey, a case she has investigated for a year and is no nearer to solving. Her home life is equally complicated. Divorced but with her ex (David Denman) living on her grounds, she shares a house with her spiky mother Helen (Jean Smart), smart daughter (Angourie Rice) and grandson Drew (Izzy King) and is still feeling the after-effects of a tragedy she can’t bring herself to speak about. Yet she has to put this professional and personal malaise aside when a local murder may or may not play into Katie Bailey’s plight.
With a homicide at the centre of it, Mare Of Easttown feels a bit like a more measured version of The Undoing transposed to the rust belt, a decent-enough procedural with a grabby hook at the end of each episode. Yet, Ingelsby has more on his mind than whodunnit. The show at once zeroes in on Mare’s problems — a custody battle for Drew, meetings with a psychiatrist (Vanita Kalra), awkward date nights with author Richard (a charming Guy Pearce) — and broadens its view to take a panorama of Easttown’s denizens, including Katie’s suffering, cancer-ridden mother Dawn (Enid Graham), priest-with-a-past Mark (James McArdle) and single mother Erin (Cailee Spaeny). It’s commendably ambitious but the plot elements sometimes work against each other — too baggy to be a compelling crime thriller, too busy to flesh out all the characters — to make it truly satisfying.
It’s up, then, to Winslet to keep you interested. It’s an egoless performance — she spends episode one with a limp — and one that has no truck with being likeable. She plays Mare’s edges and withering wit to a tee (“Let the healing begin,” she deadpans, meeting her shrink) and her sparring with Smart as her mother is a joy. But she is also adept at conveying Mare’s vulnerabilities too. A grizzled cop with a traumatic past may be a trope, but Winslet makes it live.
An ambitious attempt to do more than a routine crime show, Mare Of Easttown doesn’t always work, but it’s worth it for Winslet’s downbeat, complicated cop.