When was the last time you saw a stone-cold classic on TV? You know, the kind of show you feel the instant need to tell family, friends and the whole world about? Or, as it’s known these days, posting something on social media.
For me, there have been just three flawless shows over the past year: Michaela Coel’s sexual assault drama “I May Destroy You” on HBO, Mark Ruffalo playing long-suffering twins in “I Know This Much is True” (also on HBO), and Netflix’s “The Queen’s Gambit.” (I’d like to reveal that I’ve subsequently experienced visions of Anya Taylor-Joy’s Beth Harmon playing chess with some grouchy Russian on my bedroom ceiling, but I’m clearly taking the wrong nighttime medication.)
There are also two recurring shows I’d call classics: Netflix’s French comedy “Call My Agent!” – which is now unexpectedly set to return for a fifth season, delighting middle-class households everywhere – and the British cold-cases mystery “Unforgotten,” whose latest season recently aired in the U.K.
I’ve just watched all four seasons of the latter with my recently widowed mom, introducing her to the joys of binge-watching at the grand old age of 82. As far as I see it, we’re even now: She suffered the agonies of childbirth, put me through college and helped me navigate life’s sharpest corners; I’ve bought her a few box sets, shown her how to work the DVD player and how to shut out the world for entire evenings at a time. You’re welcome, Mom.
It’s true there have been plenty of enjoyable new shows over the past 12 months – including the Israeli series “Losing Alice,” “Valley of Tears” and “Tehran” – but I’m growing impatient waiting for the next “one for the ages.”
I had high hopes that HBO’s new crime drama “Mare of Easttown” might be the next one. But in the words of one of the show’s characters about how to handle the titular lead: Lower your expectations.
Having thus lowered them, I should declare that “Mare” is smart, atmospheric, involving and full of great performances. And while it doesn’t quite achieve greatness, it does achieve very goodness – and that will have to do in these crazy times.
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The seven-part show (I’ve seen five) has strong echoes of another HBO thriller, 2018’s “Sharp Objects,” and does something that will immediately make every viewer feel very old: It casts 45-year-old Kate Winslet as a grandmom.
No, the British actress hasn’t been turned into a Miss Havisham-type figure. Instead, she’s playing a 40-something woman who just happened to have kids at a young age and then saw that process repeat with her eldest child.
As well as trying to make the acronym GILF a thing, Winslet’s Mare Sheehan is a detective in a one-horse town where the steed has long been put out of its misery and shot. The establishing shots of Easttown tell us everything we need to know about the place: bleak industrial landscape, dilapidated old rural house, cemetery.
The biggest surprise – given that so many of the characters spend their time bitching about the place – is that Easttown is an actual township in Pennsylvania. Rest assured, the town’s real-life residents need not expect a tourist boom after “Mare” airs.
This is the kind of place where the 25th anniversary of the town’s sole sporting triumph is a big thing and where, when characters hear that someone isn’t from the area, they respond with lines like “I like him already.”
The second big surprise is that “Mare of Easttown” is a completely original storyline and not adapted from a novel, article, blog post, podcast, overheard conversation or however else TV shows are usually sourced these days. “Original” may be stretching things a little, though, as plenty of very familiar tropes are on display here: the troubled cop with more family traumas than your average Greek tragedy, the crappy nowheresville locale, the unexplained disappearance of local teenage girls.
Yet while this may feel superficially familiar, there are engaging characters wherever you look and the central mystery proves a gripping one. The show’s problem comes later on with efforts to strike a balance between these quirky characters and the actual investigation, which veers into formulaic terrain at times.
The quirky characters include Mare’s mom, Helen, played by Jean Smart, the kind of actress who immediately elevates any show she’s in. Helen is one of four generations of the Sheehan family living under one roof, and her parenting skills can be gauged by her bafflement at her daughter’s suggestion that they all hold a “family meeting” at a particular crisis point.
As well as incidental characters like the rookie cop who can’t stand the sight of blood at a crime scene, there’s also Colin Zabel (Evan Peters), the county detective drafted in to help Mare when no progress has been made in the case of a missing teenager. Peters is a wonderfully gawky, nerdy presence – and it makes sense that he’s the character who gets to awkwardly say “Have a good night Mare” at one point.
Kudos to the show’s writer, Brad Ingelsby, for waiting until the end of episode 2 before delivering that inevitable line, and also for creating such a fun bunch of characters to hang with. They’re led by Winslet’s Mare, a woman whose hair, with roots all too prominent, suggests either that Easttown’s hair salons were shut long before COVID-19 came along, or Mare has stopped caring about such things.
The show is at its best when it focuses on her struggles to cope with being a cop and single grandmother (not aided by the presence of her ex-husband and his new partner literally next door). Yes, there are a couple of (unintended) funny moments when Winslet gets dressed up and reminds us that she can scrub up like a Hollywood A-lister. Otherwise, though, this is a strong, affecting performance that draws us into Mare’s world and everyday frustrations because her life perhaps peaked 25 years earlier when she made an unbelievable basketball shot to secure her town its unlikely sporting glory.
“Doing something great is overrated, because then people expect that from you all the time,” she says at one point. But while “Mare of Easttown” may not qualify as a TV great – yet, at least – there’s still so much here that demands a return visit in the future.
The U.S. streaming platform Topic is fast becoming the go-to place for quirky Israeli series. Following on from “Nehama” and “The Grave” in recent months comes “The Wordmaker,” a thriller that first aired in Israel in 2015 as “Hazoref” (“The Predator”).
The show stars Adir Miller, best known in Israel as a stand-up comedian and co-creator of the hit Israeli sitcom “Ramzor” (“Traffic Light”), but he’s playing it straight here in this offbeat show by writer-director Dror Sabo.
To give you an idea of how unusual it is, each episode starts with this quote from the Talmud: “A sleep which is no sleep, a wakefulness which is no wakefulness. He answers when he is called, but cannot recall an argument. When, however, he is reminded of something, he remembers it.”
Things don’t get any clearer for Miller’s Dr. Avi Milus (or the viewer) as the show initially unspools, drawing inspiration as much from the world of kabbala as it does from more conventional thriller tropes.
Whenever I see Miller, I automatically assume he’s Seth Rogen’s Israeli cousin, and he’s particularly schlubby here as an expert in sleep disorders who’s experiencing some major nighttime issues of his own. To put it another way, this guy walks into a bar and later wakes up there, even though he had already left it and gone home to sleep.
As Dr. Milus attempts to work out if the parasomnia he experienced as a kid has returned with potentially deadly consequences – and yes, parasomnia is a real condition, even if it feels like the kind of thing we only see in shows like this and the Netflix hit “Behind Her Eyes” – we’re thrown into a world of kabbalist myths and family secrets.
I can’t tell you that “The Wordmaker” is one of the best Israeli series of the past decade, but it’s definitely intriguing and unlike anything else you’ll see on TV this week.
If it were on Netflix, “The Wordmaker” would be described as “spiritual,” “twisty” and “bonkers.” After all, it’s not every show that revolves around the transformative powers of frankincense, as apparently revealed in Sanhredrin 43.
It also offers you the chance to see Shira Haas in an early role. And if you think the “Unorthodox” and “Shtisel” actress only looks 12 nowadays, wait till you see how she looked when she really was still a kid. The raw talent is unmistakable, though.
“Mare of Easttown” is on Hot HBO Mondays at 10 P.M., with new episodes available the same day on Hot VOD, Yes VOD and Cellcom TV. It will debut on Yes TV Drama on May 30. A new episode of “The Wordmaker” is available on Topic every Thursday.