Readers Write In #372: ‘Mare of Easttown’ and the ‘Mad Men’ syndrome

Posted on June 16, 2021

32


(by Madan Mohan)

Mare of Easttown, the crime series starring Kate Winslet as the eponymous Mare (short for Marianne), has won much critical acclaim, particularly for the acting and more specifically for Winslet nailing the Delco accent (Delaware county of Pennsylvania). And while I did enjoy it too, I was left with a feeling of not being completely satisfied.  And trying to vocalise my complaints set me thinking about something that, for want of a better word, ‘afflicts’ modern television/OTT. I call it the Mad Men syndrome.

Mad Men here is a reference to the (again, critically acclaimed) series about 1960s America as seen through the world of advertising. The 60s as a carryover from the Eisenhower era and its contradictions (which were about to collide with the civil rights revolution and blow up) was brilliantly observed and in loving detail in the series.  The moral ambivalence of the characters also made it harder for the audience to just pick sides as it were while also keeping them on tenterhooks.  Because when you know a particular character isn’t goody two shoes, a range of amoral possibilities suddenly open up in terms of predicting how they would react to a situation.

mare of easttown

It was also different in terms of its sheer sprawl.  Rather than an urgent canter, the show moved at a leisurely crawl, taking its own sweet time to let events unfold.  This did mean that the pace of the show got glacial at times.  But…the audience didn’t seem to mind.  Perhaps, the sheer contrast with the somewhat tacky and rushed style that television was generally associated with until then, was riveting.  Mad Men didn’t have long sections of dialogue that you would associate with David E Kelley or Aaron Sorkin, nor noisy and dramatic background score interjections.  It was more true-to-life. And so it was that Mad Men, by breaking the formula, established a new formula in the TV/OTT world. And the formula was sprawl, sprawl and crawl.

There were certain advantages that Mad Men enjoyed on account of its subject matter and the time period that made its sprawl forgivable.  Those of us not born in the 60s would not find a reimagination of it familiar in the sense we would something contemporary. The 60s also is a particularly significant period of time in modern history and has acquired a mythology of its own.  Mad Men could tap into these points of interest and subvert expectations by showing how the 50s was in fact alive and well in the 60s.

A series like Mare of Easttown does not have these advantages.  Yes, the post-Trump era has created belated interest among production houses in showing the Rust Belt rather than, well, New York City or LA all over again. Setting it in a suburb rather than the city of Philadelphia itself introduces interesting dynamics, like the way everyone knows the police officer Mare intimately, at times too intimately.  The character of a middle aged policewoman who has already turned grandma and is not done seeing men just yet is also fresh and intriguing (more so than it ought to be in 2021, but that’s another story).  So, yes, there is potential.

But does all this potential really translate to 7 episodes, each roughly an hour long?  I am not entirely convinced. Again, I do find the sub plot of the (rather dysfunctional) family life of a policewoman as well as the various stories that together make up the community of Easttown interesting.  But perhaps my curiosity in this regard was satisfied by the halfway mark, at which point the rest of the series started to become a drag, at least in places.  The rather forced romantic subplot involving Guy Pearce, giving precious little to do for a very accomplished actor, didn’t help.

In essence, Mare of Easttown takes 7 hours to tell a story that would have lasted an hour in an episode of Hercule Poirot or Miss Marple.  I get that Mare of Easttown isn’t that.  I do appreciate that Mare is an ordinary and wholesome detective rather than the deliberately cartoonish manner in which the fabled Agatha Christie detectives were drawn (actually, not so cartoonish in the case of Marple). 

Which is why I would have gladly settled for a 4 episode plunge instead.  Where, yes, we do get acquainted with suburban Pennsylvania (or rather, a particular suburban culture found in the Philadelphia region) and we do see the struggles a female detective has to go through largely because she is a woman and no social structure as yet exists to alleviate her difficulties. But where we also move on more briskly with the business of finding the murderer.

Ah, the murderer.  Without giving away the name, I am going to issue a partial spoiler (so stop reading here if that would bother you) in saying that the grand finale episode is the mother of all deux es machinas. 

The last episode verily sums up the problem with several series being made today.  Form has been elevated so much that there isn’t enough attention anymore to substance.  If you write a murder mystery, the denouement has to be super duper convincing.  It is the centrepiece of such a story, at the end of the day.  Obviously, though, Brad Ingelsby for all his other strengths is no Agatha Christie/Arthur Conan Doyle/Erle Stanley Gardner and makes a pig’s breakfast of it.

A terribly unconvincing climax leaves a sour taste in the mouth.  And that is when I counted the hours I spent bingeing on this series.  Maybe it’s time screenwriters saw some virtue in tautness again. I am very happy to report that the French series Call My Agent had no problems keeping me hooked by tying in similar complex dynamics with uproarious humour and racy, racy writing.  And if the French look no-nonsense compared to America, perhaps a reality check is in order.