Posted in Television

TV Times Three

Kate Winslet, John Douglas Thompson and Evan Peters: “Mare of Easttown”

Television in whatever form, be it broadcast, cable or streaming, has never been better. The choices are endless—even if you plopped yourself down in front of a screen and glued your eyelids open 24/7, it would be impossible to keep up with every worthwhile show that’s available.

Within the last month I caught three excellent series, two of which pair up nicely in terms of genre. “American Crime” and “Mare of Easttown” are mystery/fictional crime shows, while “Hacks” is a prime example of dark comedy. All make for excellent viewing.

“American Crime” lasted for three seasons when it originally aired on ABC. I had seen the second season when it was first televised, and caught up with the remaining seasons after Netflix sounded the alarm that the show would depart at the end of May. Each season of “American Crime” focuses on a different scenario (in sequence: drug dealing/murder, sex crime/revenge porn and immigrant abuse/murder) while examining the disparate treatment of people who are touched by the criminal justice system, whether suspect or victim, and their families and friends. Issues of race, class, gender and immigrant status are thoughtfully explored. Four key actors appear in different roles throughout the show—Felicity Huffman, Timothy Hutton, Regina King and Lili Taylor, all giving excellent performances throughout, as do guest stars such as Cherry Jones and Dallas Roberts. The writing is consistently illuminating without being preachy, and it’s a shame “American Crime” didn’t enjoy a longer life. Hopefully it will be picked up by another streaming service soon.

I particularly enjoyed “Mare of Easttown” for a number of reasons (and yes, I thought the “Murdur Durdur” parody on SNL was hysterical). In addition to strong performances by all concerned, I thought the pacing was just right. The story didn’t linger—I didn’t feel a sense of attenuation even with several blind alley theories of the crime, not to mention Mare’s idiocy in stealing heroin from the evidence locker to plant on the mother of her grandchild. Whatever plot holes existed—and there were several—the shocking fifth episode alone was worth the price of an HBO subscription. And it goes without saying that several of the actors may need to dust off the mantle for the Emmys which should come their way. In addition to Kate Winslet, Jean Smart (more about her below) and Evan Peters, I was pretty much bowled over by Julianne Nicholson. I’ve enjoyed everything I’ve seen her in, whether “E.R” “Law & Order: Criminal Intent,” “Boardwalk Empire,” or “Masters of Sex,” even as far back as “The Love Letter.” The uniform praise she’s now receiving for her performance in “Mare of Easttown” is both well deserved and long overdue.

Mulling it over: Hannah Einbinder (Ava) and Jean Smart (Deborah) in “Hacks”

Is there anything Jean Smart can’t do? Going from Kate Winslet’s mom in “Mare of Easttown” to comedian Deborah Vance in “Hacks” might seem a stretch, but she does it with ease. If you enjoyed the late lamented “GLOW,” you should grab onto “Hacks” at your earliest convenience.

This is a very smart (no pun intended) show. Deborah Vance, long time, old style comedian who’s on the verge of finally wearing out her welcome in Las Vegas, is in need of fresh material and an approach that’s consonant with today’s humor. Her beleaguered agent sends her another one of his clients, Ava (Hannah Einbinder), a comedy writer who’s become otherwise unemployable due to a single indiscreet tweet. That these two are miles apart in age, outlook, economic status and above all, frame of reference, is the engine that drives this show.

You may find the first couple of episodes a bit trying, since Deborah is so acerbic and in fact mean to Ava. But these are not without charm—the laughs fly as they furiously shoot one-line barbs at each other, and we learn that Ava can give as good as she gets. Midway through the season, “Hacks” seems to really hit its stride. Deborah and Ava begin to grow a mutual regard, and their romantic interactions with others aren’t diversions but instead necessarily tell us so much more about their characters: Deborah’s on again, off again relationship with Marty (Christopher McDonald), the owner of the hotel where she performs, and Ava’s meet-up with a handsome stranger at the hotel in which she’s staying, as well as her evident inability to shake loose from a former girlfriend.

Speaking of Emmys, it wouldn’t surprise me in the least if “Hacks” corners the market in the comedy division. Hannah Einbinder, who in fact is a stand-up comedian (and Larraine Newman’s daughter) seems to grow as an actor throughout the series. She and Ava seem to mature at the same time. And I can’t say enough about Jean Smart. She makes Deborah a complex character whom you want to know more, not less, about, especially in the last two episodes of the series. Her reaction when she thinks Ava has betrayed her trust is one of the most memorable scenes of the show. Rather than displaying anger, she seems to fold into herself. Her confrontation of Ava in the next episode is extraordinary, both in writing and performance. Kudos, ladies.

We’re left with a particularly juicy cliffhanger at the end of the final episode. Since “Hacks” has been renewed for another season, we’ll just have to wait to see if Ava dodges disaster once again. In the meantime, enjoy Season 1 on HBO Max. It’s so good I may watch it again.