Somewhere in the dark and arcane recesses of the British television industry, there is a strange machine that dictates what makes it to our screens. Commissioners pull a lever, gears whir, steam spurts from mysterious nozzles and it spits out a script. The input function is simple: take a beloved domestic TV star and put them in an under-appreciated region of our shores, add in a dose of low-stakes intrigue and maybe (specially applied via a stars-and-stripes trigger) an American guest actor. It is this machine that has delivered us ITV’s Maryland: Suranne Jones heads to the Isle of Man to unearth her mother’s secret past, encountering there, for some reason, Stockard Channing.
More specifically, Becca (Jones) is forced to reconnect with her estranged sister Rosaline (House of the Dragon’s Eve Best) after their mother is found, unexpectedly, dead and, unexpectedly, in the Isle of Man. What has their mother been doing in this green and pleasant tax haven, when she’s supposed to be caravanning in Wales? Becca and Rosaline are cheap chalk and expensive cheese; Becca dealing with a truculent teenager, and Rosaline with a recurring health scare (in her opening scene, she takes a Zoom call during a doctor’s examination, so the audience knows she’s a busy lady). But when they discover their mother’s secret home on the island – complete with walls of framed photographs of her girls – they are pulled together into a journey of self-reflection. “Do you know how many Sunday dinners I’ve made?” a frazzled Becca despairs to her big sis. “And not once has she mentioned any of this?”
Arriving in her mother’s Manx paradise, Rosaline immediately engages in flirty badinage with their cab driver. “Are you the only person on the island with a taxi licence?” she asks; “Who says I have a licence?” he (Dean Lennox Kelly) replies. Hugh Quarshie (of Holby City fame) plays mum’s mysterious partner: possibly in love, possibly in crime. And then there’s Channing’s Cathy: the lone, suspicious, American on this outpost in the Irish Sea. It’s all a little convoluted and a lot contrived, but the essence is that after years of near silence, the sisters are forced to confront each other, themselves, and the holes in their shared past.
Co-created by Jones and Trollied supremo Anne-Marie O’Connor, Maryland is not setting out to reinvent drama. The script, in its backdrop and the emotional cogs that turn throughout, is undoubtedly functional. It recalls, at times, projects like Broadchurch, Bad Sisters and Mrs Wilson. This is hardly a bad thing: it might be a hybrid of commonplace parts, but it’s an effective one. Jones – her CV all but unblemished in three decades on TV – and Best have a natural and easy chemistry. Channing, meanwhile – who plays a kingpin blow-in on the island – appears to have wandered in from an entirely different project. She growls things like “I was no fan of her dishonesty” and cradles a cup of tea like she’s never touched a hot drink in her life.
Far from being a negative, this schlocky impulse prevents Maryland from maudlin cliche. The show zigzags between something that looks like prestige TV – predominantly when Jones and Best are alone together – and something that has the plot devices (and undiffuse, shadow-casting lighting) of Hollyoaks. At its best, it is a chill-inducing, moving portrait of sisterhood. But these moments are punctuated by pulpy parentheses that prevent Maryland from becoming too trite, too predictable.
On the conveyor belt of British TV – which has, of late, been putting out cookie-cutter serials like Ten Pound Poms and Great Expectations – Maryland has just enough bite to break the mould. It won’t be a Tuesday night revelation but, in what is proving to be a Golden Age for middle-aged female actors on the small screen, Maryland is neatly packaged and infinitely watchable. After all, painting by numbers sometimes produces a perfectly pretty picture.