Streaming has come a long way. While movie theaters offer up an endless succession of Marvel sequels, services like HBO, Apple TV+, Hulu, Netflix and others are producing original content that features A-list actors.
Case in point: Apple TV+'s Shining Girls and HBO Max's Mare of Easttown. Both bingeworthy series showcase first-rate performances from Elisabeth Moss and Kate Winslet, two actresses I've followed since the beginning of their careers. Not only that, each story adds an original take on the ever-popular crime drama genre.
It took me a year to watch the critically acclaimed Mare of Easttown, but fortunately I caught Shining Girls not long after its April release.
Shining Girls: a sci-fi twist on crime
Ever inserted your keys into the wrong car door or forgotten a face that should be burned into your brain? Welcome to Kirby Mazrachi's world. In some stories you get the sense a character's mental terrain keeps shifting due to trauma. In this one you can't be sure: is Kirby off kilter because of her past or is she actually moving through time? If she is shifting, why is it happening?
Based on the novel by Lauren Beukes, Shining Girls follows Kirby as she tries to catch the man who brutally attacked her and left her for dead. Though she was aspiring reporter Sharon Leads before the attack, she has changed her name and now works as a lowly archivist at The Chicago Sun-Times. Understandably, she is the kind of woman who wants to disappear. Years after the attack she still carries some pretty distinctive scars, both internal and external. The last thing she wants is to get involved with anyone or anything.
Kirby has quit her job and is about to move to Florida when another girl is murdered. She soon finds herself working with reporter Dan Velazquez to solve the case, which she believes connects not only with her own attack but also to the murders of many other women. Each episode shifts from past to present to past at dizzying, unpredictable intervals. Almost immediately, viewers feel as disoriented as Kirby, who can only keep track of her reality by writing down basic facts in her journal. Think of the series as a splice of The Man in the High Castle and Memento.
Moss's performance as Kirby manages to be both sensitive and unnerving. Ironically, she comes to feel like the only reliable, believable thing in this fantastical landscape. Times change, jobs change and, yes, her hair undergoes every possible incarnation. She returns one night to an apartment she doesn't recognize, only to find herself married to a man she barely knew five minutes earlier. And guess what? She forgot to pick up his birthday cake for the party.
To make matters more confusing, nobody seems to get that something is very, very weird. Is she crazy?
Aside from Moss, the other main characters' performances are also strong. I especially liked Wagner Moura as Velazquez, who struggles to balance his job, his kid and his tendency to drink too much. I totally bought into the developing connection between Kirby and Dan so the ending was especially poignant for me.
But my favorite thing about the eight-part series is the way it weaves sci-fi elements into a traditional psychological thriller. I'm sure they're out there but I can't think of another series that does this. Hopefully other directors will take their cue from creator Silka Luisa. I would love to see more genre-bending suspense like Shining Girls.
Which brings me to the one thing that fell short, though from what I've read of the reviews I'm an outlier on this point. In Beukes' acclaimed novel, there is a unifying sci-fi conceit that ties all the murders together. There is a reason these “shining girls” need to die. That rationale is missing from the series and it takes away from the resolution—to the point where I searched the book and read a plot summary to make sense of the killer's motivation. Other reviewers have lauded the omission, so I am apparently the exception. Still, it was the one point where the sci-fi and the thriller didn't quite fit--a glitch in the matrix.
Even with the change from the novel, Shining Girls is a compelling watch. If you're tired of straightforward thrillers, you won't regret watching the series. And at $4.99 a month, Apple+ is a bargain when it comes to streaming services (plus you get seven days free. . .).
Mare of Easttown: catch her if you can
As Mare Sheehan in this procedural thriller, Winslet gives the detective all the moral ambiguity of a real-life investigator who has made some less-than-ideal choices.
She is devastatingly believable as a jaded former basketball star who lives in a run-down Philadelphia suburb. People still remember Mare's game-winning shot but she wants no part of the memory. When she encounters a young county detective sent from headquarters, he asks about the framed "Glory Days" article she refuses to hang on her office wall. She could care less about her stint as a hero-athlete in high school. She's simply been through too much. Oh, and she's got a murder to solve.
Here's the thing: she does care, in spite of herself. Even 25 years later she feels the same obligation to come through in the clutch. People in Easttown, especially one of her former teammates, still count on her to save the day. Her teammate's heroin-addicted daughter went missing the year before but Mare hasn't solved that case and her failure stings.
It's a gritty, unglamorous role and Winslet nails it. Even in the final heart-wrenching episode, her heroism is marred by loss. Not only the loss of her son, who committed suicide years earlier, but by other losses she may or may not be responsible for. Because real happy endings are usually tainted by mistakes we made along the way—or by the means we used to get them. Some things can't be fixed so the best we can do is learn to cope. Like Mare, sometimes the only way to do that is with the help of a vape pen and a Rolling Rock.
In addition to Winslet, the rest of the cast also gives remarkable performances. While some dramas aren't worth the hype, this series more than deserved its 16 Emmy nominations. Easttown looks and feels like any American working-class town, where people still know each other from high school. Mare's home life is almost as interesting as her quest to catch the killer. Her elderly mother Helen lives with her and brings some much needed humor to her grim daily existence. Her ex-husband bought the house next door and he also adds humor, along with a non-nuclear-family vibe. Her teenage daughter Siobhan grapples with the loss of her brother and at times seems more responsible than Mare. At other times she's just another teenage girl, with the same insecurities, missteps and hopes.
The only part of the series that didn't work for me was Mare's love interest. Unlike the connection between Dan and Kirby in Shining Girls, the bond between Mare and Richard fell flat for me. It wasn't a huge plot element, however, and didn't detract much from the story. Ultimately, I watch procedural thrillers for that final twist that reveals all. Mare of Easttown more than delivers and the ending is utterly believable, utterly devastating.
Will there be a season 2? Series creator Brad Ingelsby has said he's open to the possibility, though nothing concrete is in the works:
“I think if we could ever crack a story that was as emotional and surprising, then I think maybe there's a conversation. I don't have that in my head right now, but I mean, listen, I love Mare. If we could ever give her a great season, I would certainly consider it. I would only do it if I was convinced we could make it great, though. I wouldn't do it just because you have a chance to do it. I would want to make sure that it was as rich and compelling as I hope this season has been.”
Aside from the need for another great story, Winslet would have to be on board. While she has expressed a desire to revisit Mare despite the emotional toll the performance took on her, her schedule may be less open. Still, roles like Mare's don't come along often:
“I would absolutely love to play Mare again. I miss her. I really do. It’s the strangest thing. I feel like I’m in mourning. It was an absolutely wonderful role."
Whether Winslet returns as Mare or as another character in a new streaming series, I hope I haven't seen her last break-out performance. Her upcoming Avatar 2 sequel will probably be fine. After all, it's Winslet. Even so, I doubt it - or the additional two follow-up sequels (sigh) - will do justice to what she is capable of as an actress. The same goes for Moss, who broke into the crime drama genre in Jane Campion's eerie thriller Top of the Lake. May the odds be ever in their favor.