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Mare of Easttown (Sky Atlantic) is a small-town murder mystery where the small town is more interesting than the murder. It’s billed as a detective drama, but really it’s the study of a woman who happens to be a detective. With its downbeat tone and knackered heroine, it most closely resembles BBC One’s Happy Valley, albeit not in the same league.
Kate Winslet is good, though, because isn’t she always? She plays Mare, working in the police department of the Pennsylvania community where she grew up. She gives a performance devoid of vanity, which means her roots have grown out and she eats junk food. For this alone, Hollywood will probably give her an Emmy. But Winslet is also an actress who can convey a character’s pain with the subtlest of gestures.
Mare has the weight of the world on her shoulders – a demanding job that is as much social worker as police officer, and a complicated home life. For reasons not fully explained in episode one, but which hint at tragedy, she is raising her young grandson. Her mother (Jean Smart) is also in residence, along with her moody teenage daughter. And her ex-husband has bought the house right behind hers, which in another drama would seem a ridiculous coincidence but fits the narrative here, because Easttown is the sort of place where everyone is involved in everyone else’s business.
This sense of place is Mare of Easttown’s strongest suit. Writer Brad Ingelsby is a Pennsylvania native, and has captured the claustrophobia of a blue collar, down-on-its-luck neighbourhood where Mare remains a local celebrity because she made a winning shot in a basketball game 25 years ago.
I’ll be honest: the four-star rating here is a bit of a cheat: episode one doesn’t merit that, being such a slow-burner. But I’ve had an advance look at the next couple of episodes, and it’s worth persevering. The plot gets going and Winslet makes the most of a role that in lesser hands could be a collection of tropes (in episode two, grouchy Mare is paired with a hotshot young detective brought in from out-of-town).
The drama does rather have its cake and eat it by playing up the dowdiness of Winslet’s character, yet giving her a love interest in the shape of Easttown’s most sophisticated (and unlikely) resident, an author played by Guy Pearce. Still, I enjoyed the aftermath of their sex scene, in which Mare pulled on her woolly socks and explained that she had a grandchild to take to school.