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Making the most of killing time

Robert Galvin

Word of mouth is a tricky business in the age of modern technology … and not only because you know longer need your mouth to immediately spread the word.

If you start hearing or reading that a movie (or TV series or book, etc.) is worth the investment of your time, you almost have to stop listening (or reading) immediately to keep from being told every little twist turn or outcome before you begin to invest.

Now, in the past, I have not been shy of seeking out spoilers — particularly about entertainment offerings that a) I knew would be water cooler fodder and b) I had no intention of experiencing myself.

But the combination of being shut in for so long by the pandemic, the streaming/download/instant information culture, and the plethora of options stacking our personal queues with Things We’ll Get To Eventually has made avoiding spoilers nearly impossible.

So, this past week we’ve begun an experiment. We’ve started to watch a limited-run series in our preferred genre — a mystery that already has played out — to see if we can get to the end without stumbling across its secrets.

We anticipate many moments of closing our eyes, blocking our ears, and babbling incoherently await us.

(As many of you know, I’ve mastered the third of those methods.)

The mystery in question is HBO’s “Mare of Easttown,” which stars the always-watchable Kate Winslet as a police detective in a Pennsylvania town so small that her ex-husband (and his new fiancée) live across the street.

Watching the first episode this week was like surveying the buffet of similar series that have been recommended by word of mouth.

Here, set against the gray skies, the color-drained palette and the spirit-drained characters of many a mystery, Winslet moves through life as much by momentum as anything else.

A sprained ankle early in the episode is the manifestation of the difficulty she has going forward — particularly because she is haunted by The Case She Hasn’t Solved … this one involving the missing daughter of a high school classmate.

That this classmate (who, of course, is Fighting Cancer) was also a teammate on the basketball team that was such a highlight for the otherwise-dreary town that, 25 years later, the starting five is brought out for cheers at halftime of the current team’s game, only adds to the sense that this is a world where characters are always in a stage of dying.

Speaking of which … if you’ve ever watched or read a mystery, you’ll immediately be able to spot the character who winds up dead at the end of the first episode.

“Mare of Easttown” packs quite a bundle into its 63-minute premiere. Along with Divorce, Cancer and Memories of the Big Game, there’s Drug Addiction, Teenage Parenthood, Voyeurism, Alcoholism, Suicide, Catfishing, Religion and (of course) Sex.

After the halftime ceremony, Mare hooks up with another of popular culture’s most trusted tropes … the One-Hit Wonder.

Guy Pearce handles the thankless role with no small amount of self-deprecating charm. His debut novel won the National Book Award (because of course it did), he’s yet to write another, and now finds himself hired to be a guest lecturer at a nearby college.

With a wavy shock of combed-back gray mane, Pearce’s Richard Ryan could be a doppelganger for the archetype of such characters — Grady Tripp, as portrayed by Michael Douglas in the criminally underrated “Wonder Boys.”

Both characters used to care, but things have changed.

That’s enough narrative, however, for the question of whether to continue watching a multi-part, prestige series really comes down to a quote attributed to the late critic Roger Ebert: “It’s not what a movie is about, it’s how it is about it.”

Certainly, many aspects about “Mare of Easttown” will bring to mind the first season of “The Killing,” the series from a decade ago which featured a bedraggled female detective trying to piece together a murder while keeping her life together.

Winslet’s character even looks as though she’s borrowed her appearance from Mireille Enos’s Sarah Linden — down to the barely-kempt hair and worn out overcoat.

“The Killing” also was set in a dank and drained city (Seattle in that case) that it might as well have been called Gloom.

The hope is, having watched just the first episode, that “Mare of Easttown” commits itself over the remaining six installments to this atmosphere — for its characters have be painted in a compelling-enough fashion that it’s easy to see why the show generated word of mouth.

It’s one thing that separates this series from another recent HBO effort … the ultimately disappointing “The Undoing.”

As was discussed in this space at the time, that series wanted to attain the same level of omnipresent despair, but wound up having more attention being paid to Nicole Kidman being dwarfed by a dizzying array of full-length coats.

Winslet, in that lone drab blue, insulated waistcoat, barely seems protected by the circumstances that swirl around her in a community clearly from the Other Side of the Tracks from Kidman’s uber-rich wife of a murder suspect.

It’s this sense of relatable community — where no one is perfect and hope seems not just elusive, but no longer sought — that gives “Mare of Easttown” its promise from the beginning.

As for its conclusion? If you’re looking for me, I’m the guy who has his eyes shut and ears blocked as he babbles incoherently in the other side of the room from the water cooler.

Mail Tribune news editor Robert Galvin was shocked, shocked to discover Bruce Willis dies at the end of rgalvin@rosebudmedia.com