I know I’m not alone in occasionally sighing wearily at Netflix‘s shouty home-screen, proffering its shiny wares like a fairground barker at a coconut shy.
And in the age of the big streamers’ apparently bottomless pit of high-concept, budget-busting, algorithm-driven dramas, how does a relatively low-concept, human-scale drama not only find a space on our ‘small’ terrestrial screens but in our hearts and minds, too?
Maryland initially presents like so many other British TV dramas, replete with evergreen cliché opening scene: the busy family breakfast in an ordinary kitchen.
But as the entirely compelling yet very relatable story unfolds – chalk-and-cheese Mancunian sisters Becca and Rosaline are awkwardly reunited in grief when their mother Mary’s body is found on a beach on the Isle of Man, confusing not least because they thought she was in Wales – Maryland has you gripped and doesn’t let go.
This is partly the work of a top-of-their-game cast, with Suranne Jones (whom I’d happily watch while she did her ironing, frankly) as Becca and Eve Best as Rosaline both brilliantly supported by the kind of character actors who are great in everything they grace (Happy Valley’s George Costigan as the sisters’ dad Richard, Ackley Bridge’s Andrew Knott as Becca’s husband Jim, Shameless’s Dean Lennox Kelly as Rosaline’s love interest and Holby City’s Hugh Quarshie as… well, that would give too much away for those who’d like to catch up). Plus, as a casting curveball, there’s Stockard Channing as an unlikely friend of Mary’s.
However, even with this much talent shimmering on-screen it’s the writing that ensures Maryland is a genuine must-see. From an original idea by Suranne Jones, the screenplay is by debut dramatist (though she has form in comedy) Anne-Marie O’Connor, whose fan club I’m about to found; her characters speak the way people actually speak, refreshingly.
As an antidote to all those in-yer-face US shows with the focus pulled so tight they can easily be watched on phones by sugar-rushed tweenagers, this is a low-key tale that knits middle-aged sisters’ sibling rivalry with the kind of secrets that make even apparently ‘normal’ families mysteriously unknowable. It’s a story wholly concerned with the quiet complexities of women’s lives, in which the men’s stories are secondary to the bonds between mothers, daughters and sisters.
Yet it’s also funny and sufficiently cleverly plotted to keep any stray viewers who don’t fall into that demographic on the edge of their sofas, too.
And Maryland deploys a trick I can’t recall seeing before: even though Becca and Rosaline work, beyond the fact that Becca’s job involves wearing a skirt-suit and a nametag while Ros’s career allows her to afford a headful of highlights and a wardrobe of creamy cashmere, we never find out what they actually do, simply because it doesn’t really matter.
This means that unlike all those busy pursed-lipped professional telly women careering their way towards their plot’s glass ceilings, these women’s relatable emotional journeys have more space to breathe – and resonate – with viewers.
In the context of unshowy British TV drama then, Maryland is pretty much a blueprint for proper grown-up storytelling – and one that the sisterhood, whether or not they’ve actually got sisters, will recognise as something really special.
More dramas like Maryland as soon as possible, please.
A chaotic modern-day Columbo
If you’ve never watched Netflix’s Orange Is The New Black (Prisoner Cell Block H with 21st-century smarts, basically) or Russian Doll (a stylish time-slip comedy with just a hint of Groundhog Day), then the American actress Natasha Lyonne may just have passed you by. No shame in that, however now it’s time to catch up: Lyonne stars in Sky’s ten-part murder-mystery romp Poker Face – and it’s a lot of fun.