Small towns harbor big secrets in prestige TV, and so it is in “Mare of Easttown,” a showcase for Kate Winslet that resembles “Broadchurch” in the broad strokes, before establishing its own distinct personality. Slow to start, the limited series gains momentum while mostly providing Winslet a fine star vehicle a decade after her Emmy-winning turn in HBO’s “Mildred Pierce.”
Winslet’s Mare is a detective in the town where she grew up and was once a high-school basketball star, crankily living with her mom (Jean Smart), daughter (Angourie Rice) and a young grandchild born to her late son. Ill-tempered and dour, the reasons for Mare’s perpetually foul mood gradually become clear, along with the contours of a case that involves a missing girl and a murder, neither of which are exactly common occurrences in this Pennsylvania community.
Like its British predecessor “Broadchurch,” having a cop with local roots complicates the investigation, and Mare gets paired up with an outsider (Evan Peters), who understandably worries that she’s a little too close to some of those potentially involved.
Still, “Mare” is as much about the protagonist’s personal life as the crime part, with Mare meeting a new guy (Guy Pearce, another “Mildred” holdover) and chafing over the fact that her ex-husband (David Denman), who lives a stone’s throw away, appears to be getting on with his life.
To say the mix of elements has a familiar whiff would be an understatement, but writer Brad Ingelsby (“The Way Back”) and director Craig Zobel (“The Leftovers”) have managed to put them together in a compelling way once the show begins to disgorge some of those aforementioned secrets.
“My life’s complicated,” Mare says when she Pearce’s character, a novelist who has recently moved to town, and for once, that’s not just the customary hyperbole.
Given Winslet’s talent and pedigree – adopting a very particular accent that, like everything else here, takes a little getting used to – one suspects the pay channel would have agreed to let her read the phone book. The fact “Mare” actually pays off as a more low-key addition to the genre that HBO gulped down with “Big Little Lies” and “The Undoing” feels like a happy bonus.
“Mare of Easttown” ultimately yields a better production than the description probably sounds – proof that with this sort of endeavor, it’s not always so much about the ingredients as how you put them together.
“Mare of Easttown” premieres April 18 at 10 p.m. on HBO, which, like CNN, is a unit of WarnerMedia.