It’s a miserable existence, being a TV detective. The days are filled with dead bodies and disturbing revelations about human baseness; when it’s time to clock off, there’s certainly no respite to be found in a happy home life - relationships are long-defunct or failing, the past is inevitably filled with traumatic secrets and booze is only consumed in vast quantities. No wonder they spend so much time staring dolefully into the middle distance.
New to the small screen canon of troubled cops is Mare Sheehan, the world-weary Pennsylvania detective played by Kate Winslet in HBO and Sky Atlantic’s latest prestige mini-series, Mare of Easttown. Years of dealing with “the burglaries and the overdoses and all the really bad crap that goes on around here” in a small town where opioid addiction seems rife have made her world-weary, and the shadow of an unsolved missing person case looms large.
Her personal life is the requisite level of fraught: her ex-husband has moved on, she is still grappling with a painful family tragedy, and - perhaps the most glaring warning sign - sometimes she eats that mind-boggling aerosol cheese almost straight from the spray can. When she is paired up with county detective Colin Zabel (Evan Peters) on a murder case that shocks Easttown’s tight knit community, things start to unravel with unsettling speed. “I always knew I’d be a cop - it’s the life around me I didn’t expect to fall apart so spectacularly,” she muses while knocking back another beer in another bar.
Clearly Mare has never watched ITV3, or whatever its American equivalent may be. But although the tormented cop trope is hardly new, the show’s opening episodes are utterly absorbing, cleverly drawing us into the central mystery and into the sprawling ensemble’s tangled personal lives, which are equally, if not more compelling.
Writer and showrunner Brad Ingelsby grew up in Easttown, where the show was also filmed, and his script nails the closeness - sometimes comforting, often claustrophobic - of small towns, where everyone is tangentially connected to everyone else. “Is there anybody you’re not related to?” Zabel asks Mare at one point, upon learning that the local priest is also her cousin (her answer is a resounding “no.”)
The past is never far from the surface in a community like this one, either. People won’t stop harping on about Mare’s stint as a high school basketball star, scoring the shot that won her team the league title 25 years ago, but they won’t let her forget about her darker moments, either. The way each episode weaves together glimpses into the lives of these supporting characters, hinting at connections or as yet untold stories, reminded me of an Elizabeth Strout novel. Her stories may be set much further up the east coast in Maine, but there’s a similar sense of diving into an all-too believable social ecosystem.
It’s a joy to watch Winslet, too, who plays a woman on the verge so well, even while grappling with a Delco (that’s Delaware County) accent, which she has described as “one of only two dialects in my life that made me throw things.” My British ear is not sufficiently well-attuned to the nuances of US regional accents to pass any verdict, but a glance at the flurry of approving articles from Philadelphia publications suggests she’s nailed it.
Along with the skilful writing, the light and shade of her performance lifts the series out of clichéd cop territory. Winslet previously picked up an Emmy for her lead role in HBO’s Mildred Pierce 10 years ago, long before fronting a TV series became a Hollywood power move: perhaps another trophy could be on the cards for this one, too. Let’s just hope she doesn’t wait another decade for the follow-up.
Mare of Easttown is on Sky Atlantic and Now from April 19, with episodes airing weekly