‘Mildred Pierce’: HBO gets nastier than Joan Crawford could

Kate Winslet suffers mightily as the title character in ‘Mildred Pierce.’ Photo credit: Andrew Schwartz/HBO

Cable television has a nasty — and highly entertaining – spring in store for viewers.

There’s a lot of gripping adult drama ahead in HBO’s “Mildred Pierce,” AMC’s “The Killing” and Starz’ “Camelot.”

The title “Mildred Pierce” evokes memories of Joan Crawford and her Oscar-winning performance. But HBO’s ”Mildred Pierce” is closer in spirit to James M. Cain’s gritty novel than to Crawford’s glossy 1945 film. Cain told frank, twisted stories in “Double Indemnity” and “The Postman Always Rings Twice,” and “Mildred Pierce” may be the most twisted. Just wait till the end. It’s a pity Joan Crawford didn’t get to play those scenes. The five-part miniseries arrives at 9 p.m. Sunday.

“Mildred Pierce” is the story of a mom, Mildred (Kate Winslet), and her daughter Veda. Mildred’s saga is stirring and sordid. She rises from waitress and cook to restaurateur. She overcomes a bad marriage and personal tragedy. But Mildred is also a punching bag for Veda (Evan Rachel Wood takes the role in part 4), because she can’t help loving that daughter of hers.

Oh, the heartbreak. Veda is one of the worst children in popular culture, up there with the kiddies in “The Bad Seed” and “The Omen.” Wood rises to the monstrous task.

Director Todd Haynes tells the Depression-era story with persuasive style, color and energy. It’s a testament to Winslet’s skill that you pull for long-suffering Mildred yet wish she’d snap out of it. The excellent cast includes Brian F. O’Byrne as Mildred’s husband, Guy Pearce as a dashing cad and Melissa Leo and Mare Winningham as Mildred’s down-to-earth pals.

“Mildred Pierce” looks as luscious as one of Mildred’s pies, but there’s a bitter aftertaste. There has to be to serve Cain right. And, finally, he is being served right.

Also coming soon:

***”Camelot” puts an adult spin on the saga of King Arthur (Jamie Campbell Bower, quite charming as a boy thrust into the king’s role). The series, which arrives at 10 p.m. April 1 on Starz, rolls out the nudity, violence and strenuous sex. This Irish-Canadian series shoots in Ireland, and the scenery is breathtaking. Arthur’s rise is thrilling as a boy’s adventure, and the Excalibur scene is a high point in the first three episodes.

Yet let me say it again: This is strictly an adult series. Josesph Fiennes is suitably crafty as Merlin, but the real standout is former Bond girl Eva Green, who gives a bravura performance as the wicked Morgan. She’s very good at being bad.

***”The Killing” arrives at 9 p.m. April 3 on AMC. Based on a Danish series, this one tells the harrowing story of teen girl’s murder in Seattle. The heavy emphasis on atmosphere reminded me of “Twin Peaks,” but there are no supernatural elements here. Detective Sarah Linden (Mireille Enos) is preparing to leave her job, but she has to stick with this case.

Her new partner, Stephen Holder (Joel Kinnaman), has unorthodox ways of getting information. The dead girl’s parents are played with agonizing feeling by Michelle Forbes (“True Blood”) and Brent Sexton. Billy Campbell is here, too, as a politician whose run for mayor could be torpedoed by the murder investigation.

“The Killing” looks like another winner from AMC, home of “Mad Men,” “Breaking Bad” and “The Walking Dead.”

If you’re bemoaning the lack of new fare this spring, look to cable. But be ready: It’s wicked good.

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