The new HBO show you won't be able to stop watching
Truthfully, there is not much I can tell you about the best TV show of 2021 so far. You can know that it stars Kate Winslet doing a PhillyVoice-approved Delco accent ("allatime"), and that the central story revolves around the murders of two young women in a rural Pennsylvania town. You can know that it's called The Mare of Easttown, that it's a limited series that premieres on HBO on Sunday, and that you should absolutely be watching it.
Much more than that, though, and I'll start to spoil the fun. Because Mare of Easttown is the rare prestige TV show that shares the genetic makeup of a thriller; it's both moody and atmospheric like the slow-burning Top of the Lake or True Detective, while being as propulsive as a Dan Brown paperback. By taking the best elements of both and dumping the rest — unlike Brown, every twist and turn here is earned — Mare of Easttown is unstoppable.
In fact, perhaps the show's single greatest misstep in the first five episodes made available to critics (out of an eventual seven) is its title. Mare of Easttown "sounds like it's going to be a YA equestrian novel or a Masterpiece miniseries set on a Victorian farm," Time quipped in its review; I first became aware of the show thanks to a bus stop advertisement, and my mind also immediately went to horses. But nay: Mare of Easttown, rather, refers to Detective Mare Sheehan (Winslet), a Rolling Rock-swilling, "Jesus Christ"-groaning curmudgeon and former high school basketball star who's on a first-name basis with just about everyone in the township. In the first episode, we learn that Mare is plagued by a case she wasn't able to solve, pertaining to a former teammate's daughter who went missing, and is presumed dead, a year prior. And all too soon — setting off the events of the show — another young woman will be killed.
I have to stop myself again, though, because what happens after that is a tumble of events, clues, red herrings, setbacks, and startling revelations that sink their hooks into you and don't let you go. Though it's probably unfair to Mare of Easttown to imply that it can be so easily "spoiled" by a summary — the show is far stronger than just its plot points, and is as much a character study as it is a crime drama — it's that forward momentum of the evidence and dead ends that Mare faces that makes it so compelling to watch. The episodes don't just end in cliffhangers to ensure that audiences tune in next week (despite how binge-worthy it is in construction, Mare is being doled out weekly), it earns your attention with actual payoffs, so that every detail matters and builds on the rest. And it doesn't let up: "I've seen five episodes of #MareOfEasttown, and the way that after episode five I would commit murder myself to see the last two…" tweeted The Daily Beast's critic, Kevin Fallon. I've felt that way myself after every single one.
This is refreshing, and surprisingly rare, to encounter. Too often, prestige TV shows take for granted that audiences have been taught to wait until they get their momentum going, and, as a result, showrunners can take an absurd amount of time to actually develop their narratives.
"I feel like we're entering a weird and frustrating phase of the It Gets Good (Eventually) phenomenon, exacerbated by Peak TV, by the 'it's really a 10-hour movie' approach, and by the way that It Gets Good has itself become so familiar and accepted that it feels like some shows factor a degree of hope-watching into the creative process, with the hope-to-reward ratio getting wildly out of whack," critic Alan Stepinwall wrote in a prescient piece for Uproxx in 2017. We're there now.
Combined with "the Netflix bloat" — the way many shows on streamers end up having too many episodes with too little story, a consequence of companies warring for your constant attention — even some of the better TV shows around can feel thin and stuffed with pointless filler at times. That isn't the case, though, with Mare of Easttown, where very little has seemed superfluous to me so far.
But Mare of Easttown doesn't achieve this just by aping a crime novel and moving at a breakneck speed. Instead, its real skill is in picking its moments to slow down — spots that bring us closer to the characters and help us to invest in them as people. It's this quality that also keeps Mare of Easttown from being yet another show about a pretty dead white girl or another surface-level take on blue-collar America. Bodies aren't just props waiting to be found, and the violence done to them solved; they're people we, like Mare, come to recognize and understand.
I don't know where Mare of Easttown is going to end up. Let me warn you, though, that it's agonizing waiting to find out. I can sympathize with the strategy to sit this one out until the show is over, so you don't have to wait between episodes — although I'd encourage you, also, to give it a try. To let yourself sit with it. To allow it to spring up in your mind between Sundays, to gnaw away at you. And even though I might not be able to vouch for the show's ultimate payoff — I'll be waiting to watch that part live, with everyone else — this excitement, in the meantime, is a rare treat. I'd forgotten how wonderful it is to wonder what will happen next.