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Force of Nature 

Terrific writing and another memorable turn from Kate Winslet in HBO’s gritty crime series, “Mare of Easttown.”

click to enlarge Kate Winslet as Police Detective Mare Sheehan talks to stern Police Chief Carter, played by John Douglas Thompson, in HBO's "Mare of Easttown," a highly watchable seven-part series starting this Sunday at 10 p.m.
  • Kate Winslet as Police Detective Mare Sheehan talks to stern Police Chief Carter, played by John Douglas Thompson, in HBO's "Mare of Easttown," a highly watchable seven-part series starting this Sunday at 10 p.m.

I’ll admit I’m a sucker for English actress Kate Winslet.

She’s only 45 but already she’s had a long and diverse career in the movies, choosing interesting roles and always bringing her A-game.

And her A-game is pretty damn good.

Add another memorable role to the list with her portrayal of Mare Sheehan, a smalltown police detective in HBO’s riveting, dark and gritty new limited series, “Mare of Easttown,” debuting this Sunday at 10 p.m. This might be my favorite police role since Frances McDormand’s Marge Gunderson in “Fargo” – although it’s a totally different style and tone: Sheehan is a whipsmart and curmudgeonly single mom (and grandmom) nearing her breaking point – a blue collar workaholic who has to deal with others questioning her work, as well as her splintering family.

She’s a former high school basketball star in small Easttown where everybody knows everybody, but she’s on the verge of becoming the town pariah because she hasn’t solved a missing person case involving the daughter of one of her former teammates. Then the grisly murder of a 17-year-old girl occurs and Sheehan is forced to work with a visiting county detective played with a goofy, almost “Twin Peaks”-like vibe by Evan Peters from “American Horror Story.”

There’s a lot to chew on here: On one level it’s a solid crime procedural and murder mystery. But it’s far more affecting as a character study and family drama, especially in the ways Sheehan attempts to free herself from serious past traumas.

Series creator and writer Brad Ingelsby (“Out of the Furnace”) does terrific work with the nuanced writing, nearly all of the scenes feel authentic and lived in, putting to shame the garbage cop shows on network TV; while director Craig Zobel (“Westworld”) does a nice job ratcheting up the tension and capturing small details while painting a rich portrait of a hopeless Northeastern hamlet with plenty of seedy characters.

But Winslet really is such a force in nearly every scene: Dryly funny with a certain gallows humor and constantly vaping, she plays this very human, very stressed-out character in a deep and committed way. In one powerfully acted scene, as she’s talking about her former son who committed suicide, her eyes alone flash such pain and regret that one almost wants to look away. To me, Winslet is without question, one of the great screen talents of the past 50 years.

If you need more reasons to watch, the rest of the cast is wonderful, too; give casting director Amy Kaufman major props. Easily some of my favorite moments from the first five episodes occur among members of Sheehan’s immediate family. Jean Smart is especially sharp and hilarious as Helen, Mare’s mother, while the detective's daughter, played by Australian actress Angourie Rice, does nice understated work with the supporting role. Much has been made in early media stories of the fact that Winslet and the rest of the cast have nailed the Philadelphia accent, one of the least imitable out there.

Fans of the film “Little Children” will delight in the role reversal in the series’ opening scene, which features Sheehan investigating a peeping tom at the home of worried Betty Carroll, played by the amazing force of nature, Phyllis Somerville. Both she and Winslet were fantastic in “Little Children,” but there Somerville played the loving mother of Jackie Earle Haley’s Oscar-nominated pedophile character, here she does a total 180 as an elderly Karen.

I don’t want to give away any plot points in the later episodes, but I can say that this is an intense, highly recommended HBO drama, the kind of prestige series likely to win awards and fervent fans, plus the episode quality stays fairly consistent.

It should be a talked about series as we head into summer.

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