As it stands, five of the eight episodes of the HBO limited series Sharp Objects have already aired. As a viewer, it’s in your best interest to catch up before the sixth episode broadcasts on Sunday, August 12, because the show has ratcheted into a rare degree of tension that’s impossible to replicate with a binge watch.
You already know the pull quotes. Sharp Objects, a Missouri-set whodunit concerning the brutal murder of two young women, is based on the novel by Gillian Flynn, the same savvy mind behind Gone Girl.
David Fincher directed the film adaptation of the thriller that launched a thousand think pieces about “cool girls,” and his take on the source material was appropriately chilly, but Sharp Objects is an entirely different animal. The show is pleasurable in a vein that’s both familiar and strange, like a close friend who shows up to lunch with a drastic haircut.
Where Fincher’s Gone Girl was all right angles and stainless steel, Sharp Objects meanders perplexingly like a rough country road. The lush, green scenery squelches.
The story is carried by Camille Preaker (Amy Adams), a swaggering newspaper journalist with the unmistakable air of a smart rich girl who’s always resented her lack of access to true marginality.
A depressive with a history of extensive self-harm, Preaker has been tasked with investigating the murders by her father-figure editor Frank (Miguel Sandoval). Camille is undeniably the best man for the job—the double killing took place in Wind Gap, her hometown—so she wearily consents to leave the haven of her desk in St. Louis to report the story.
Frank, aware of her struggle with mental illness, calls often to check on Camille and to goad her into meeting deadlines. Frank’s wife, one of the best characters on the show, can always be seen hovering near the phone whenever he’s on the line with his employee. She’s just as worried about Preaker as her husband is.
Their concern is justified: Camille is a semi-functional alcoholic disaster coated in yesterday’s mascara. She always wears black. Adams, sometimes typecast into unflinchingly sunny roles, plays Camille tenderly, making her soft even though the character aspires to be cold and invincible. It’s an instant classic workaholic anti-hero performance reminiscent of Mad Men‘s Don Draper and Homeland‘s Carrie Mathison.
A lesser actress would have made Camille’s addiction subtle, in keeping with a journalistic hyper-vigilance. Adams knows better. Whenever Camille emerges from her shit-can car clutching an Evian bottle filled with vodka, she squints ostentatiously into the Bible Belt sun. It’s the narrowed gaze of a woman with a perpetual hangover, but as messed up as she unabashedly is, Camille’s far from the only person in Wind Gap, Missouri with a drinking problem.
The nullifying, misleading effects of liquor are all over Sharp Objects, which thus far has featured several characters with motive to kill but offered no clear indication that the murderer has even been shown onscreen. The often-ambient soundtrack tinkles with ice and bourbon lapping against the firm lip of a tumbler glass, sometimes offset in exhilarating fashion by the roar of a Led Zeppelin song.
Camille, her monstrous mother, her wild half-sister and her stepfather are all (in addition to often being drunk) under the influence of deadening subjectivity that prevents them from ever communicating productively. So too is the entire town under the spell of uppity silence; Midwesterners protect their own regardless of the consequences.
In Sharp Objects, the consequences are female pain and death. No one, including a big city detective and the local sheriff, is positive who murdered the girls, but it remains to be seen how far the community will be willing to go to find out. Ignorance seems much more blissful.
Camille appears to be the only one truly invested in figuring things out, but even so, director Jean-Marc Vallée resists the temptation to let the audience in on her thoughts via voiceover. Instead, Camille’s internal monologue and memories of a childhood wracked with tragedy and sexual experimentation flicker visually across the screen.
Her mental images are often disturbing: blood spattering a toilet bowl, a leering boy removing his jacket before an encounter in the woods, and the specter of Camille’s long-dead sister are always hovering just below the narrative’s surface like an unforgettable nightmare.
The pictures sometimes come so thick and fast that they seem to suggest a subliminal crescendo: Camille’s memories may hold the identity of the person who murdered two children, if she can find the strength to decode them. In this sense, in particular, Sharp Objects is an avant-garde marvel well worth your time.
It’s nearly impossible to insist a show is good enough to qualify as “appointment TV” without sounding like a maladjusted baby boomer, especially when a persuasive argument relies on a reader’s willingness to accept a recommendation from a stranger who may not share their tastes and interests.
If you’ll forgive the digression, this fallacy of necessity is illustrated especially well by music criticism. During Rolling Stone’s heyday, people relied on music writers for guidance and jurisdiction because the expense and literal material weight of music required that customers deliberate before making a purchase. Now that every song ever recorded is essentially free and accessible within seconds, music criticism simply matters less.
The same is true for TV. There’s just so much of it, and Sharp Objects is part and parcel of the streaming era, not an outlier. Put another way, don’t take my word for it that the show is fantastic. Its quality and brilliance are accessible to anyone interested in an absorbing mystery: all you have to do is look.