Most people may only be familiar with the first part of the following Oscar Wilde quote, but it should be read in its entirety: “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery that mediocrity can pay to greatness.” I thought about that when “Saturday Night Live,” which has slipped into mediocrity over the years, parodied suburban Philadelphia towns located in Delaware and Chester Counties as portrayed in HBO’s “Mare of Easttown.” I grew up in Delaware County in the 1970’s and 1980’s and I love seeing my hometown onscreen with Kate Winslet et al. and as the center of jokes by the SNL crew. They may have been laughing at the Philadelphia suburbs and trying to insult us, but I choose to be flattered.
The spectacular “Mare of Easttown,” with superb acting and an engaging murder mystery, constitutes unparalleled entertainment. Avid watchers of the show count the days until Sunday’s final episode when we find out who murdered young mother Erin McMenamin. Discussions about the show highlight the producers’ choice to focus on grit over glamour and make the dreary fictional suburban Philadelphia town where the story is set as much of a character as the actors.
The storyline stresses how the close-knit nature of a small suburban community can become claustrophobic – with everyone facing similar problems, escaping can seem elusive. Indeed, in “Mare of Easttown,” the adult characters seem resigned to their fate of never leaving Easttown, and the younger characters dream of growing up and moving away. But is it really a negative to know all of your neighbors and be related to half of the town? Having a support system close by means family and friends step in when help is needed – indeed the titular character, Mare, is raising her grandson due to her own son’s death. In Easttown, there is always an aunt, grandparent, cousin, or lifelong friend close by to lend a hand. That demonstrates the power of true community and is a foreign concept in cities and towns constituting mostly transplants rather than those born and raised in the region.
In the first episode, an elderly woman calls Mare to complain about a prowler. Mare patiently explains that, as a detective, these types of quality of life crimes are not really her job and should be handled by uniformed police officers. The woman reminds Mare in no uncertain terms that she does not care about titles – she knows Mare personally so Mare is who she will call. “Saturday Night Live” might have missed this nugget but those of us who grew up in Delaware County are all too familiar with the concept that no matter how old you are or how successful you become you never shake that you respect your elders. If you get a call to return to your parents’ house to clean the gutters or move furniture – you do it, or else – notwithstanding the fanciness of your job or how far you went in school. We may celebrate your success but we make sure to keep your ego in check.
Making fun of our accent constitutes low-hanging fruit to comedians – we can even admit that we sometimes sound ridiculous, even without the unflattering imitations. While Kate Winslet seems to have effortlessly mastered how we mangle the pronunciation of phone, water, and home, I take pride that I grew up in a place that our dialect grows stronger with every passing generation because many people who grow up in the Philadelphia suburbs tend to raise their own families there – a testament to the fact that it is a pretty great place to live. Unless you venture outside the area, you may never even realize you have an accent.
While “Saturday Night Live” looked down on the characters that seem to subsist on a diet of Wawa coffee, hoagies, and cheesesteaks, I revel in the Wawa success story – a family business that became a phenomenon and pioneered self-serve, computer touch screen food ordering. Delaware County birthed Wawa and we have every right to be proud.
Living in the Philadelphia suburbs also provides diverse opportunities for weekend getaways or vacations within a short driving distance. The “Mare of Easttown” characters sport apparel from both the Jersey Shore and the Pennsylvania mountains – both destinations less than two hours away. Similarly, we easily access the entire east coast corridor – not many places in America can so easily visit such a diverse choice of major cities.
One lesson I do hope our region learns from Easttown is honoring hardworking law enforcement and that victims of crime should be respected – and those who commit crimes should be caught and brought to justice. “Mare of Easttown” takes great pains to explore the life of the murder victim and the pain the community feels at her loss. Law enforcement in Easttown face grave dangers, much like their real-life counterparts. Lately, voices calling for criminal justice reform in our area seem to elevate the rights of the criminals which drowns out those who want to prioritize law and order. A truly secure and free society can be mindful of both criminal and victim – their respective rights should not be mutually exclusive.
We find out the identity of the murderer in Sunday’s final episode. I will watch, with just a little bit of smugness. To the rest of America, I might be just another person from that suburb where our pronunciations of the words, “Mary, “Merry,” and “Marry” sound identical. I welcome the parodies and I know that those who imitate us envy our greatness.
Linda A. Kerns is an attorney who lives in Center City, Philadelphia. She grew up in Delaware County, Pennsylvania.