The detective-show bingo card fills up pretty quickly with “Mare of Easttown,” HBO’s big prestige miniseries of the moment.
We have a young woman, murdered. The setting is a tight-knit working-class community where everyone seems to be hiding something. The production design conveys a general sense of autumnal gloom and economic distress. Plot twists cast doubt on characters we come to trust.
And sure enough, the protagonist is a world-weary, loose-cannon detective who becomes consumed by the case while outrunning her own demons. Pray tell, will she be asked to hand in her badge and gun after going too far? No spoilers here.
Everything about “Mare of Easttown,” created by Brad Ingelsby, is by-numbers. You’ve seen versions of this story, with incremental differences, in “Top of Lake,” “Broadchurch,” “The Fall,” “Happy Valley,” “The Killing,” “Sharp Objects,” “True Detective” and several others I’m probably missing.
So then why does “Mare of Easttown,” just over halfway through its seven-episode run, feel like such a singular achievement, so vivid, so in command of its story and characters and setting that the viewer basically disappears into it?
The obvious, Occam’s-Razor explanation is that Kate Winslet — who stars in the title role as Mare (short for Marianne) Sheehan — is phenomenal, unsurprisingly. Mare is a local sports hero-turned cop who’s haunted by the death of her son and her own inability to solve an older case involving a missing young woman, a failure that resurfaces when a different young woman (Cailee Spaeny) turns up dead.
The backdrop is Easttown, Penn., a small town in Delaware County, just west of Philadelphia, an area both archetypically American and deeply idiosyncratic. Everyone in “Mare of Easttown” eats aerosol cheese and talks with an accent that does not lend itself easily to imitation, and must be doubly challenging for a British performer like Winslet: water is “wooder,” house is “hoose,” overdose is “eu-verdose” and so on.
“Saturday Night Live” already took a lot of the good jokes about this, which, as people in a region with its own mockable speech quirks, we’re allowed to enjoy. Over the weekend it aired a fake trailer inspired by “Easttown,” pointing to either the HBO show’s growing cultural profile or, just as likely, a slow week on “SNL.” It was for a “grizzled lady detective” drama called “Murdur Durdur,” as in (exaggerated Philly accent): “They murdured my durdur and threw her in the wooder!”
If “grizzled” is the right term for Mare, it’s hard to blame her. “My life’s complicated,” she tells a romantic interest, vastly understating the case. What Mare deals with in a typical hour of her life seems like enough to grind an ordinary person into cheese-steak filling.
Her town is basically a “River”-era Bruce Springsteen song brought to life, where the whiskey shots and Yuengling only dull so much of the pain. Everyone has kids young and stays put. The high schoolers get high and fool around in the nearby woods. The adults are all connected through blood or failed marriages, and every line of dialogue is laden with unspoken context and shared history that viewers are left to untangle largely on our own.
Most of these people either despise Mare or live in her house, which she shares with her overbearing mother (the magnificent Jean Smart) and teenage daughter (Angourie Rice) while raising her toddler grandson and living next door to her ex-husband (David Denman), which all sounds like a ton of fun. Add a custody fight with that grandson’s widowed mother and, yeah, you’ll get a layer of grizzle.
Considering the prestige of the production and Ingelsby’s uncommonly empathetic knack for world-building, the identity of the killer is going to matter less than the journey we all take to get there, featuring plenty of misdirection and red herrings until the villain is revealed as either the most or least obvious suspect, but has, in either case, been hiding in plain sight.
A really good show can do that, too: conceal itself overly familiar clothing. Just because we’ve gotten countless versions of a story doesn’t mean the best one isn’t still out there somewhere, or right in front of us.