Academy Award winner and East Hampton native Melissa Leo returned to TV screens last Sunday on HBO’s new, six-part miniseries I Know This Much Is True. The show, starring Mark Ruffalo and based on the bestselling novel by Wally Lamb, is Leo’s first recurring television role since her turn as Goldie Herschlag in two seasons of Showtime’s gritty I’m Dying Up Here about the 1970s stand-up comedy scene in Los Angeles.
Leo also appeared in one episode of Dolly Parton’s Heartstrings on Netflix last year.
WARNING: Very minor spoilers ahead. But nothing beyond the first episode.
In I Know This Much Is True, Leo plays “Ma,” the dying mother of twins Dominick and Thomas Birdsey, brilliantly played by Ruffalo in what will surely be an Emmy-nominated performance. Leo once again disappears into the role of a stoic New England mom, much like her Oscar-winning turn as Alice Ward in David O. Russell‘s 2010 boxing film The Fighter, though she’s significantly different and more damaged.
Set in Lamb’s favorite recurring fictional town of Three Rivers, Connecticut (like Stephen King’s Castle Rock, Maine), I Know This Much Is True follows Dominick as he struggles to care for his identical twin brother, Thomas, while also attempting to discover the truth about their family history. The twins’ mother, Ma (Leo), has never revealed their father’s identity to them, but as cancer brings her ever closer to death, she gives Dominick their grandfather’s memoir, handwritten in Italian, which he gives to a translator with hopes it might finally offer some answers.
This somewhat bleak and gritty series kicks off with a disturbing scene—Thomas cutting off his own hand in a public library—and continues down a tragic and emotionally brutal road from there. Along with Leo and Ruffalo, both at their captivating best, I Know This Much Is True‘s features a very strong cast, including Juliette Lewis as maddening translator Nedra Frank, Rosie O’Donnell as Thomas’s social worker Lisa Sheffer, Kathryn Hahn (of HBO’s Mrs. Fletcher) as Dominick’s sympathetic ex-wife Dessa Constantine and Imogen Poots (28 Weeks Later) as Dominick’s girlfriend Joy Hanks.
It is not always easy to watch, but I Know This Much Is True showcases some of the best acting currently on television and, much like HBO’s equally grim Sharp Objects, it feels like it’s heading toward a satisfying payoff.
Catch up with I Know This Much Is True Episode 1 now on HBO On Demand or HBO Go, and continue watching the remaining five installments on HBO every Sunday at 9 p.m.