Stop me when you can name the HBO drama matching the below description:
An investigator plagued by the past has to get to the bottom of a pivotal case in order to save the day — and themselves.
Did you guess “The Outsider”? Maybe “The Night Of”? Perhaps you thought of “Sharp Objects,” or even “Perry Mason”? Wait, of course, never mind: You said “True Detective” — Season 1, 2, or 3.
Well, no matter what you thought of, you were probably right.
Ever since Detective Rust Cohle declared time to be a flat circle, TV networks have followed his looping logic to lucrative ends. Star-powered limited series have all but taken over television, prestige programs continue to prop up network reputations, and the cop drama — a staple of television long before “True Detective” — is still repurposed, rebooted, and resurrected over and over and over again. These days, they just happen to win more awards.
Especially at HBO. After rushing the second season of Nic Pizzolatto’s anthology series to air just 17 months after the original premiered, the premium network pumped the brakes on “True Detective” and developed new shows built under a similar framework. Fresh titles would fill audience demand for more cases to crack, keep the TV Academy enthralled, and create opportunities for more sustainable franchises like its moody breakout.
Over the last eight years, they did just that: “The Night Of” hit in 2016, and there’s still buzz around a sequel season to this day; “Big Little Lies” (2017) shifted focus from the detectives to the suspects, but kept the stars; “Sharp Objects” (2018) forever changed how we think of teeth; The Monterey Five returned in 2019 along with a new season of “True Detective”; and 2020 saw not only “The Outsider” (a supernatural murder-mystery) but also “Perry Mason” (a noir murder-mystery) and “The Undoing” (a murder-mystery modeled after “Big Little Lies”).
The latest, “Mare of Easttown,” is set to wrap its seven-episode series on Sunday, May 30. On paper, Kate Winslet’s detective story checks all the boxes. Above-the-title lead? Check. Big case to solve? Check. An investigator haunted by their past? You better believe it. And if you delve further into the details, more similarities with “True Detective” pop up. The primary victim is a young, naked girl. The setting is an idiosyncratic, semi-rural town. Our titular detective has family trouble.
There are other, more granular comparisons, but “True Detective” doesn’t deserve too much credit for all this success (though I’d argue HBO sure does); “American Horror Story” first turned the anthology series into a craven commodity, while HBO placed Oscar winners like Meryl Streep (“Angels in America”) and Winslet (“Mildred Pierce”) in limited series long before Matthew McConaughey was crushing beer cans. Anyone tempted to slight HBO’s mysteries for playing in the same sandbox should first recognize what separates them from each other: Distinctions stem from how each show is made, not what they’re modeled after. As a wise woman once said, a story’s originality may not matter as much as you think. Often, what matters is the creative team’s approach.
“I’m a big fan — I’ve watched the first season of ‘True Detective’ more than one time,” series director Craig Zobel said in an interview with IndieWire. “[While working on “Mare of Easttown,”] I thought about ‘True Detective,’ I thought about ‘Big Little Lies’. I assumed there would be comparisons, but I guess I wasn’t really worried about it because I felt like we were in different territory.”
“Hopefully to be in the same category as a show of that caliber is a compliment,” writer and executive producer Brad Ingelsby said. “But my hope is to have the show [play] as a drama that has a mystery to it; that it really is a show about a family in crisis, a woman in crisis, and really, it’s about a woman who has to deal with grief. She’s deferred this grief in her life, and the way she’s done that is by throwing herself into these cases.”
Michele K. Short / HBO
The Power Behind Stars
The emphasis on Mare Sheehan (Winslet), the town, and their shared history are three key factors that help distinguish HBO’s latest limited series — not to mention the emphasis on women in a typically male-dominated genre. One of the series’ biggest risks came in the premiere, which doesn’t reveal who dies until the very end. It spends the entire hour walking the beat with Mare, as she sluggishly pokes at routine police duties before sharing a few drinks with her ornery family at home. Putting that much weight on developing characters left almost no room for the mystery.
“It’s always a tightrope walk of, ‘Where do you place the emphasis?'” Ingelsby said. “There’s probably a version of this pilot where you could have had the murder at the top of the show or the midpoint. […] I think we made a conscious decision to go with the character story, and we hope that Mare is compelling enough that you want to see what happens to her, how she tackles this case, how she wakes up — which is sort of what the opening episode is about. She’s in this funk, and she’s gotta wake up in her life, in her work, in her relationships.”
Most of the premiere is spent on introductions. You get to meet Mare’s firecracker mother, Helen (played by Jean Smart), her eminently departing daughter, Siobhan (Angourie Rice), her loyal best friend Lori (Julianne Nicholson), and about a dozen other significant characters, all connected to Mare by work, blood, or both.
Ingelsby said having an “incredible” actor like Winslet gave them the confidence to spend more time on people instead of rushing into the mystery: “[You know] the audience will want to see more of her.” That makes Winslet a huge get (as a star and a first-time executive producer), who also illustrates the importance of HBO building franchises outside of “True Detective.” Fans are always clamoring for the next entry (even a Season 4 without Pizzolatto), and the network could have just created new detective stories within its established, in-demand anthology series, rather than branch out with new projects.
But as they learned from Season 2’s all-too-quick turnaround, that could damage the series’ brand and the network’s along with it. The quality connotations long-tied to HBO help lure A-list stars, and some may not want to join an existing program; they want a show that’s all their own.
Unless it’s a sequel to the highest-grossing film of all time (made by her director from the third highest-grossing film of all time), Kate Winslet doesn’t join franchises; she makes them. The same could be said for Stephen King, Amy Adams, and Nicole Kidman, all of whom delivered hit limited series at HBO. (Kidman actually starred in two, “Big Little Lies” and “The Undoing.”) Now Winslet has done the same, in her second HBO limited series after “Mildred Pierce.”
Michele K. Short / HBO
Building the Essence of Easttown
Putting the early focus on people also meant rooting them in a singular location. Ingelsby grew up in Berwyn, Penn. (an hour outside of Philadelphia) and said creating this show “always started with the place.”
“I grew up there,” he said about modeling Easttown after his Delco home. “I didn’t grow up with cops or a murder investigation in my life, but I certainly grew up there. I wanted to tell a story about the rhythms and rituals of life where I grew up — and the people that I grew up with. A lot of these characters are inspired by people I grew up with.”
Zobel got to know the people by traveling to suburban Philly and studying its residents in secret, which meant having a lot of dinners alone.
“You go to a new place and you get a sense, just as a person, that this is a unique space. The job is [to hone in on] what is telling me that. What is it that is making this feel unique?” Zobel said. “I probably looked like a weirdo, but just being in the space, watching other people, and seeing what they were doing in the space — I had to learn what was photographable about that. How do you translate that to a TV show?”
“There are certainly things we had to get right, like the accent. It’s a very, very specific accent,” Ingelsby said. “But even the beers they drink I was really particular about, the Rolling Rock and the Yuengling, and Wawa coffees and the hoagies and the cheesesteaks — I guess maybe I just felt like in the specific is the universal.”
While Ingelsby mined his memories, Zobel said costume designer Meghan Kasperlik would “furtively text” him pictures while she was out in the town.
“It’s like, ‘Look, there’s a person who’s wearing a bunch of Pokemon stuff. We should put one of our characters in that!'” Zobel said. “Focusing just on costume design, you don’t want to put every character in a flannel shirt, and just be like, ‘This is what it’s like there’ — there are variations.”
For Zobel, a lot of the look came down to appreciating practicality.
“What Easttown became for me, which didn’t really even make it into the show, was the idea of a house with wallpaper that was put up in the ’90s with a couch that’s very clearly from 2005 — mid-century, but doesn’t match the wallpaper at all — and then, like, a yoga ball,” he said. “What that says to me is that real people don’t get rid of something because a trend has changed. They’re just [thinking], ‘I like this now, too!’ Not to generalize, but whatever that was, about mixing time periods and just having the stuff you need, it also says a lot about the character of the people.”
“This is a group of people who often aren’t in the spotlight, who often don’t have a show dedicated to portraying their lives,” Ingelsby said. “And having said that, I also wanted to portray them in a way that was honest and sympathetic and heroic. I think there’s a heroism in the day-to-day grind of life — of getting up every day and maybe going to a job you don’t love, but doing it out of a sense of duty to the family you have or the community as a whole.”
Michele K. Short / HBO
Making Sure They Stick the Landing
Only after grounding Mare in Easttown did the team begin to thread in the mystery.
Both Zobel and Ingelsby expressed acute anxiety over their careful disbursement of clues, not wanting to tip their hand or make it impossible for attentive audience members to guess the killer.
“The big balancing act that you’re never quite sure if you’re doing right, is: ‘Are we giving away too much?'” Zobel said. “Essentially, it came down to shot selection. […] How much do we, in our shot selection, nudge the audience? So I would shoot the version that didn’t at all, and then I would shoot the version that went too far and was very obvious, and then I think we used both [for different scenes].”
Their technique seems to be working. With just one episode left, the world is still trying to predict the killer, with betting odds and murder rankings popping up all over the internet. Reflecting the cultural obsession are the ratings, which (per HBO) have grown episode-to-episode for five consecutive weeks and are on pace to top the network’s last hit murder-mystery, “The Undoing,” with more than 13 million total viewers.
When “True Detective” premiered, it became HBO’s most-watched first season ever, but its ending proved controversial. Some fans were underwhelmed by the Yellow King’s unveiling, even as others argued the character-driven finale worked well. Either way, the reception illustrated just how important it was to end any kind of detective story in satisfying fashion — as the “Mare” team knew all along.
“When you get to the final episode of the show, you have to stick the landing,” Ingelsby said. “I [always] knew exactly where it ended and then it was just a game of how do you plant the seeds and the payoffs and set it up in a way where the audience isn’t feeling cheated in the end — where they can go back and watch the episodes and go, ‘Oh! It was planted there, and I didn’t see it that way, but upon second viewing I know what they were doing there.'”
After capturing the ethereal essence of Easttown, after crafting an endearing portrait of its epnoymous lead, after doing everything possible to establish “Mare of Easttown” as its own unique entry in the HBO canon of crime dramas, so much of its reputation rides on making sure the mystery pays off.
“I can tell you: We spent a lot of time with, ‘How do we land this plane?’ [in a way] that’s satisfying and surprising, and isn’t cheating the audience out of things,” Ingelsby said. “That was a big effort. […] And you have to play in those genre expectations. An audience comes to these shows [and] they want to get wrapped up in the mystery, they want to try to be the one who guesses [the killer]. So I think there are certain needs that an audience has and you have to scratch that itch, otherwise they’re not going to watch the show.
“But I hope what they take away at the end of the show isn’t the mystery. I hope the ending is surprising and I hope the revelations work, but I hope what they leave with is that they got to spend time with this woman and her family. I hope this is a show that isn’t necessarily about the procedural elements — that we have them, they’re a part of it, but it’s a show about a family and a woman who has to confront this grief. I hope that’s how we separate it.”
“Mare of Easttown” airs its seventh and final episode Sunday, May 30 at 10 p.m. ET. The limited series is available to stream on HBO Max.