Local Color and Cultural Representation: A Round-up on HBO’s ‘Mare of Easttown’

I’m going to do another round-up of writing I think is worth it on a current #crime thing.

This week, everyone is talking about HBO’s Mare of Easttown, with Kate Winslet in the lead, surrounded by a fantastic cast, including Jean Smart as Mare’s mom, Julianne Nicholson as Mare’s best friend Lori, and Guy Pearce as a mysterious sometimes-love-interest for Mare, whose role in the story no one can quite figure out, even though there’s only one episode left in the limited series (which might mean there will be a huge twist in the last episode that implicates him in the complicated murder plot).

Even if you haven’t been watching the 7-part series, with episodes that drop weekly on Sundays, you’ve probably already seen the series creep into the cultural landscape, thanks in part to the “appointment TV” culture HBO sustained with this series, effectively halting the ability for some viewers to simply “binge” it at once.  This means that each week, usually peaking on Sunday and Monday, social media channels like Twitter light up with conversations between strangers with updated theories, questions, feelings, and critiques about the show, the characters, and the murder mystery plot.

What folks most comment on about the series, however, is its cultural representation, and whether or not the series succeeds as being culturally “new” or “authentic.” In general, cultural critics see the show as like all the other detective/crime docuseries that aim for the “high-end” of the prestige spectrum of TV: think Top of the Lake and The Fall as comparable dramas in many ways. They all have “strong female leads” in the lead detective roles; they all present gritty social issues, including politics, class, and the resonances of colonial violence and exploitation; the detectives are flawed and “tough,” but they are also always legibly “feminine” and “white” in their strengths and weaknesses, despite class and nationality differences between them.

Some feel that these similarities mean that there is nothing new to get from HBO’s new series, and SNL offered a brilliant skit (marred only by the unfortunate presence of Elon Musk — though he was brought into the skit in a perfect way) that plays on the repetitive tropes AND the series’ unique addition to the genre: the Delco accent and the small, working-class town setting:

Bustle even used the “familiarity” of Mare of Easttown to offer a list of other streaming series to watch for fans of the latest HBO series — the framing of the series and its similarities to others comes off a little as a back-handed compliment.

I think that some of this “it’s just more of the same” criticism is a bit too hasty, however. Of course this series (and the others like it) tick the boxes of certain criteria. The idea of “genre” is that there are cultural familiarities that link things together. Increasingly, however, I’ve been thinking about the importance of shows like Mare of Easttown as offering valuable “local color” that includes some critical representation of historical issues along with familiar tropes to attract and keep audiences tuning in.

For example, Mare is set in a working-class town in the “Delco” region of Pennsylvania, an abbreviation of “Delaware County.”  The fictional town in the series is probably much like other towns that had its “heyday” earlier in the middle of the 20th century with manufacturing booms.

The population rates for Delaware County according to census data show increases during the 1930s and in the postwar years of the 1950s and 1960s. Since the 1980s, the area has been in drastic decline.  Here is the summary of demographic data from the last census available from Wikipedia:

The median income for a household in the county was $50,092, and the median income for a family was $61,590. Males had a median income of $44,155 versus $31,831 for females. The per capita income for the county was $25,040. About 5.8% of families and 8.0% of the population were below the poverty line, including 10.0% of those under age 18 and 7.1% of those age 65 or over.

The HBO series focuses on the interconnected tragedies of an extended family (related to Mare), and thus focuses on the economic and cultural issues specific to white working-class folks in this region. Mare has a close friend from high school, Beth, who is Black, and who has a brother, Freddie, struggling with homelessness and drug addiction — but a nuanced examination of how race might contribute to Beth and Freddie’s experiences is missing. (And, I should point out that Mare’s boss is an older Black man, played by John Douglas Thompson, who is part father figure and part cliched Black police chief; and when Mare is required to see a therapist for her job, her therapist is a Black woman, also a cliche in media.)

As the SNL skit implies, the “local color” aspect of the series does function as a bit of a gimmick for the show. But the realism of the interconnectedness of lives through family, work, drugs, crime, tragedy, and friendship seems worth it. You get the sense that these characters do not have much choice for where and how they live (Mare says early on in the series that her dad was a cop, so that’s why she is. And if he had “shoveled shit” for a living, that’s what she would have ended up doing, too). And when they do have choices, they often don’t make good ones.

Despite the predictability of some of the characters and plot, and despite the relentlessness of the “Delco” accent, real information about the effects of economic paradigm shifts, depression and trauma on the personal scale, and cultural homogeneity through lack of educational and economic options comes through this series that is specific to this place and this time.

And, one more thing about that Delco accent: when someone like Martin Scorsese decides to do a “New York” or “Boston” story, and the star-studded cast signs on to giving that local color flare with their accents, do we all make fun of them? (Ok, maybe some of us do.)

But here is a round up of some snippets from other writing on this series — all of them comment on the ways the series seems derivative, but many of these folks also find something worth it.

I don’t agree with all the things these writers say, but I think they provide an interesting set of perspectives on the series. Note: these are excerpts from their longer pieces, so please click through to their whole articles to get the full context if you’re interested!

BE WARNED: SPOILERS AHEAD!

 

I. Reveiw on Vulture By Jen Chaney

(full review here)

[It’s] a plot that’s played out on television more times than can be counted. Its protagonist is a traumatized police detective who pushes boundaries to get to the bottom of the case, a type that’s figured into such crime stories since practically forever.

The show is set in a small Pennsylvania town whose modest brick homes, lined up in neat rows, chimney after chimney, are among the first images that appear in episode one, which begins in the azure light of a brisk winter day as the sun slowly rises. Immediately, you feel the sense of melancholy embedded in the cellular makeup of this close-knit, working-class hamlet. That mood, mixed with all those other elements, evokes a number of recent and semi-recent series, including Happy Valley, Top of the Lake, Sharp Objects, and Clarice.

But Mare of Easttown, created and written by Brad Ingelsby (Our Friend, The Way Back), distinguishes itself with strong characters who will grow on viewers.

It turns out that Mare of Easttown isn’t strictly a crime drama.

There are legitimate reasons for Mare to be cynical. She’s lost a grown son to suicide; gotten divorced from her husband (David Denman), who’s now engaged to another woman; and she’s trying to raise the grandson that her own son left behind. When Mare of Easttown delves into these matters, it pivots from crime drama to character study and exploration of grief. The idea that everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about permeates this series, in which Mare is hardly the only person struggling. A lot of television shows have depicted working-class folks in one-dimensional ways that reek of Hollywood elite acting like they know what regular people are like. But Mare of Easttown draws even its most flawed Easttowners with a sense of humanity and complexity, both aided by the fact that Inglesby is from the area and the production was shot there as well.

In addition to serving as a crime drama and a pure drama, Mare of Easttown also has a great sitcom embedded within it. That sitcom stars Kate Winslet and Jean Smart as Mare’s mother Helen, who lives with Mare and, in the grand tradition of mothers and daughters, has a flair for stomping all over Mare’s last nerve. [this is a nice take, despite that bad writing that delivers it — “a pure drama”?

II. The Guardian review By Rebecca Nicholson

(full review here)

It became obvious this week that this is a story of grief and how people live with it, of families being torn apart, not just by kidnappings and murder, but by prescription drugs, illegal drugs, affairs and suicide. As a portrait of modern America, it is not flattering, and the series is rarely a light watch.

Yet despite Winslet’s magnificent performance, and the intricacies of the whodunnits at hand, Mare of Easttown almost lost me at episode four. I had been wary since the first episode ended with a slow, lingering shot on Erin’s naked body – a screen cliche that should have been abandoned long ago, and seemed at odds with the show’s overall ethos. When episode four closed with the reveal that Katie and Missy had been kidnapped (and raped, we now know) by a then-mysterious man, I thought, oh, it’s this kind of show. But somehow, wrapping it up as quickly as it did, and saving the young women, got it back on track.

III. The LA Times review By Meredith Blake and Mary McNamara (aka “Mere and Mar”)

(full review here)

McNamara: Putting aside the obvious major lifting from “The Silence of the Lambs” (“I know, instead of night goggles, we’ll use security cameras!”), the episode was so exquisitely paced that it had me lulled into a humiliating false sense of security. The scene by the river when Zabel says, “How do you know what I want” made my heartstrings twang so hard. (Also, his Delco accent is even better than Winslet’s.) When they decided to chase down the lead of the truck, I was so caught up in the romance that I could barely mutter, “Um, do you think it’s a good idea to casually do a house-to-house while looking for a serial killer? Have you never seen ‘Silence of the Lambs’?”

Blake: If I’m being honest, the whodunnit element of the series is less interesting and more derivative to me than the domestic side of things, which is so richly drawn and full of surprising warmth and humor despite all the heavy themes of grief, mental illness, suicide, drug addiction, teen pregnancies and intergenerational trauma. I’d happily watch eight more episodes about nothing but Mare and her pesky turtle or Helen and her illicit affair with that smacked ass, Mr. Carroll.

McNamara: Honestly, when you list all the so-familiar tropes — the creepy Catholic deacon, the whole “outside cop brought in to help,” and even Guy Pearce’s one-novel wonder, it is kind of a miracle the show feels so new, or at least so compelling. For all of Winslet’s “eat, vape, frown” charms, I almost lost hope when Mare got suspended. First because the lead detective getting suspended in the middle of a big murder case is the oldest trick in the book. And in this case, the reason — she put drugs in Carrie’s car in the hopes of keeping custody of Andrew — felt just as “Days of Our Lives” as it sounds. I get that she’s desperate, but come on. That is a terrible thing to do on 18 different levels.

Blake: But back to “Mare.” The series appears to have replicated the formula of “The Undoing” — director-driven limited series starring Oscar winners playing Americans and following the murder of a young woman in a very specific cultural milieu — and moved the action from upper-crusty New York to the blue-collar Philly ’burbs. Unlike “The Undoing,” which seemed to divide viewers and critics last year, just about everyone so far seems to like “Mare,” which was lampooned last week in the “Saturday Night Live” sketch “Murdur Durdur” — as sure a sign as any that it has captured the public imagination. It’s broken out even as much of the country is returning to a post-vaccine semblance of normalcy and we aren’t stuck on our couches.

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