TV and entertainment media has an interesting way of coming full circle as a mirror to society. The reflective (or refractive) effect of TV certainly illuminates some of the priorities of society and pop culture in a way that’s faster and more widespread than film often is. Just in the last decade, we’ve seen the height of prestige television with male-centric shows like Breaking Bad, Mad Men, and House of Cards. It is interesting then that in the last handful of years, we’ve also seen shows like Orange is the New Black, The Handmaid’s Tale, and Big Little Lies get picked up as well; shows that focus on complicated women and the violent existences they live through. Such shows make up the context of the Hollywood that saw the #MeToo movement first in October of last year. Now, nearly a year later, one of HBO’s biggest shows is one that centers around the trauma of three women and their small murderous town of Wind Gap, Missouri. It focuses on the violence that takes place against the women and young girls as well as the environments that fester to create such violence in the first place. Brought to the world by Gillian Flynn (of Gone Girl), Marti Noxon (of Buffy the Vampire Slayer), Jean-Marc Vallée (of Big Little Lies), and Blumhouse Productions (of Get Out), HBO’s Sharp Objects is next level when it comes to addressing Trauma with a capital T.
The show begins like any other true-crime kind of story (see: In the Dark), jumping off the premise of several missing (and murdered) teenage girls in a small middle America town. Camille Preaker, portrayed exquisitely by a dis-Enchanted Amy Adams, returns home to this town to cover the story for her newspaper and is quickly confronted by the past she left behind in little ol’ Wind Gap. If you haven’t read the original book, like myself, you realize early on that the story isn’t concerned so much with the investigation of the actual murders, but rather on what happens as Camille revisits her childhood town after years of self-harm that came about as a result of growing up there with her emotionally neglectful and abusive mother, Adora, played by a wicked Patricia Clarkson. It is truly the words that come out of the mother’s mouth that make up some of the most violent aspects of this show. Throw in a teenaged sister who is coddled by Adora but looks up innocently to Camille, and you’ve got an absolutely unrelenting story about complicated (and perhaps villainous) women.
The bleakness of the story is truly captured best by literally every single thought and detail put into this show. The plot is excruciatingly and deliberately slow, making way for dizzying sequences of Camille’s fractured memories of her past. It takes the term “Southern Gothic” and ups the ante tenfold, equally extreme in ‘southern’ and ‘goth’. And serving as the center-point for this otherwise drug and murder ridden town, it's an unnerving and oddly addicting aesthetic. The creepy but fitting country music for this depressing ass show is so well-placed, and the freaky etched words in the background is purposeful, reflecting directly off the self-mutilation Camille has afflicted in her years prior to the start of the show. And whether it’s Amy Adams’ sharper-than-usual green eyes that carry the emotion or Patricia Clarkson’s vehement fragility when she says “roses are so cruel to my soft skin”, the acting in this show is absolutely superb. It’s a psychological thriller more than a crime story and it’s executed so well that I’ve already binged the six aired episodes several times.
Set in Wind Gap, Missouri however, the show is definitely a show of the wHites™. Adora throws an annual Union/Confederate party, the small handful of people of color (and specifically the black women) are relegated to stereotypical roles, and it’s all set in the deepest of the South (at least from my point-of-view as a Californian). On top of that, the hyper-sexualization of particularly the teenage girls, including Camille’s sister Amma (played by breakout star Eliza Scanlen), is not something I’m really comfortable getting behind. Especially in the latest episode (“Cherry”), there is a scene with Amma and Camille that just felt a little too HBO (despite being adapted almost exactly from the novel), if you know what I mean.
Sharp Objects is being compared to last year’s hit Big Little Lies and it’s a worthy comparison, except for the fact that they’re entirely different in my opinion. The latter, which also focuses on trauma and PTSD and a murder investigation, has sprinkles of comical Real Housewives-esque pettiness to break up some of the tension. Sharp Objects, however, has none of that. When I say this show is suffocating, it’s not just because you can see and feel the densely humid heat of Missouri lingering on all the characters’ glistening sweat. If people thought Big Little Lies was doing something noteworthy in its narrative about trauma, Sharp Objects is perhaps doing more, simply through its willingness to not hold the audience’s hand throughout the story. The show is a summer hit for sure, one that captures the dense heat of this past heat wave and the year-later remnants of #MeToo.