A good summer television program is hard to find. So far I’ve been forced to subsist on a diet of HBO’s ugly-looking, barely riveting drama Succession and ABC’s romantic reality series The Bachelorette — a bad show in any incarnation, but Becca and her batch of men this season are particularly dim. Thankfully, Sundays on HBO have turned around with the premiere of HBO’s latest effort come to sate our southern gothic needs, the limited dramatic series Sharp Objects.
Marti Noxon (To the Bone, Buffy the Vampire Slayer) created the series, based on a novel by Gillian Flynn, whose previous books, Gone Girl and Dark Places, have both found a life in cinema. Jean Marc Vallee directs all eight episodes, fresh off the success of HBO’s Big Little Lies, an apparently riveting series that failed to move me past the first episode. It was the content that stymied me more than the delivery (perhaps an unfair aversion to rich people and their secrets?) but now, on the strength of Sharp Objects, I’m wondering if I should give Big Little Lies another chance.
Most of all, I am taken by the show’s heroine, Camille Preaker, played by Amy Adams with all the grace, grit and effortless beauty we’ve come to expect. We first meet Camille fresh off her brief stint in a psych ward and back on the beat as a reporter for the St. Louis Chronicle. Her editor (Miguel Sandoval) — a Santa Claus type but with only some of the nurturing — wants to send her on assignment to a sleepy, made-up town called Wind Gap where one girl’s been murdered, and another has gone missing. And not to lay it on too thickly, but it’s true: Camille grew up in Wind Gap, and there she left behind a dead sister, a disturbed, debutante mother (Patricia Clarkson) and lord knows what other untold secrets, the likes of which Sharp Objects promises to unravel through a kinetic series of flashbacks.
The show’s first episode sets the stage with all the familiar tropes of a dead girl story of this ilk. We are introduced to a colorful cast of characters, which includes her precocious, spooky half-sister Alice (Sydney Sweeney), a complicit stepfather (Henry Czemy) and Chris Messina as the always sweating, big city detective (in this world, St. Louis and Kansas City qualify as big cities).
In Camille, Adams brings to life a character after my own heart. I’m not being cute when I confess that her secret alcoholism and plaintively troubled countenance make me nostalgic for some perversely idolized version of my former self. Most people will enjoy Sharp Objects from a place of compassionate pity for the protagonist, and that’s good. This is a show for everyone with a morbid spirit and good taste, but some of us will go a step further and weirdly want to be her.
Mere descriptions of the plot do nothing to illuminate the experience of watching this drama quietly and moodily unfold. The strength of the female characters alone makes this a different kind of noir, but more than that, the show is alive and conscious of itself with every step. Consider the scene in a police interrogation room where Messina and Adams share an emotional moment that in an ordinary story would further the plot, but here, serves to put them on equal footing. Watch as she tries on some feminine, murder movie banter, and he quietly tells her, “I’m through playing games.” Notice the genre tropes in one moment and the swift direction change in the next. I, for one, am taking this as a solemn promise for what’s to come.