Small-town America is definitely not as nice as Schitt's Creek would have us believe. But it's also not a seething pit of primordial spiritual darkness, as you might assume on the evidence of, say, True Detective.
To get a handle on the actual textures of life in the backwoods of the flyover states, look no further than Mare of Easttown, the superb HBO crime drama currently on DStv Catch Up and starring Kate Winslet.
Winslet does arguably the finest work she's ever done as Mare Sheehan, a grumpy, self-sabotaging small-town Pennsylvania cop with emotional issues so deep-seated they are practically lying down. Her extended family is a mess, her son is dead, she has two nice men haplessly trying to love her, and a killer is on the loose in Easttown.
Easttown, in Delaware County, is a character in its own right, and it's a deeply political character: it stands for all the disenchanted Rust Belt towns that elected Donald Trump in 2016, some of which helped vote him out in 2020. Factory jobs and the pre-crash dream of upward mobility have left town; opiates and alienation have moved in.
It's not a hellhole, but it's not a place any reasonable person would choose to call home.
Everybody knows each other, but not necessarily in a good way. Ties of love and violence criss-cross the lonely streets. There are real shadows in Easttown, and real splashes of light. The show's steady pulse of veracity is no surprise: the creator Brad Ingelsby and director Craig Zobel both grew up in Delaware County.
As for Winslet's performance, it is a feat of generating pathos from unpromising material. Her character is a crabby, charmless mess of a woman, capable of doing terrible things to protect herself. But she is an underdog, and we are allowed to respect her heroism whenever we see it.
In contrast to Nicole Kidman's glassy immortality in Big Little Lies, Winslet's occupation of the anxieties of midlife and the wreckage of personal trauma are palpably real. By all accounts, her Pennsylvania accent is flawless.
The amazing thing is how the technicolour sheen of Winslet's screen history, the scent of her stardom, is ushered firmly out of the frame. Mare Sheehan doesn't give a shit about "Kate Winslet". And Mare carries herself with an indifference to presentation common to people with industrial-scale problems.
With her glowering eyes framed by a filigree of crow's feet, a grown-out dye job, a wardrobe of baggy casualwear and a diet of takeouts and beer, this Winslet is very far from the upper deck of the Titanic.
The case that threatens to undo her is the murder of Erin McMenamin (movingly played by Cailee Spaeny) a local teenage mother who had been struggling to put together the money to pay for her baby son's ear operation. Her father and the estranged father of her child are both keenly observed portraits of a painfully damaged underclass masculinity: both are brutalised into emotional brutality.
But there are many other suspects for Mare to consider, and many traps that await her. In the tradition of The Killing and Broadchurch, the killer's tracks are well covered.
Aside from the propulsive hunt for justice, Mare of Easttown offers a compelling landscape of the treacherous moral economies inhabited by police officers in struggling societies.
In the aftermath of George Floyd, it is easy temptation to divide police into two clean categories: racist killers and heroic good cops. Both types do exist in the real world, of course.
But most actual police officers, be they white or black, male or female, whether they work in Easttown or the East Rand, fit neither description. They are people with ordinary flaws and ordinary virtues, carrying their own pain into a world of other people's pain.
They are doing a job that all of us need done – and a job that very few of us could handle.
- Mare of Easttown is on DStv Catch Up and Showmax