AppleTV+’s serial killer series is kept grounded by strong talent on either side of the camera.
Shining Girls makes for a difficult review because so many details could be considered spoilers. Those familiar with the source material, the novel The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes, will know the bigger ones. However, show creator Silka Luisa structured the series so differently even those who know the material may still be surprised. This review will do its best to preserve those surprises, but, as spoilers are in the eyes of the beholder, be warned your definition and this writer’s may differ.
In 1992, Kirby Mazrachi (Elisabeth Moss) is working in the archives of a Chicago paper, pulling clips for the writers while using her headphones to limit any interaction. However, news of the discovery of a woman’s body forces her out of her shell. Kirby survived an attack a few years earlier with strong similarities, including the cross pattern carved into her chest and stomach and the insertion of a random object into the wound.
Unable to ignore the connections. Kirby approaches Dan Velazquez (Wagner Moura), a former top reporter working hard for a comeback after a substance-induced breakdown got him suspended. The deeper they dig, the more defined but improbable the connections between Kirby and the murdered woman become. And the more it seems likely that several other women were victims of the perpetrator.
While not initially named as such, Harper Curtis (Jamie Bell) is the clear culprit of these crimes. The show has no interest in pretending otherwise. His every motion, every line, drips with implied threat. Throughout the Shining Girls, Bell does well finding the right modulation for Curtis. He’s scary but never brilliant, interesting but never sexy. After years of the romanticized and/or genius sociopath, it’s nice to find a series with a less seductive approach to depicting evil.
[Elisabeth] Moss keeps Shining Girls grounded despite the increasingly wild events she encounters.
A series of strong supporting performances further underpin the show. Although increasingly saddled with monologues ladled heavily with what can only be described as mystical science-speak, Phillipa Soo is a well-developed mix of confused, scared, and understanding as potential next victim Jin-Sook. Amy Brenneman as Kirby’s mom Rachel delivers, essentially, a dual performance creating texture in a character that may have been easy to skip over. However, the best of them is Chris Chalk as Marcus, a co-worker of Kirby with a deeper connection to her situation. It’s an empathetic, soulful performance that makes room for Marcus to be both a great person and a man with limits.
All of this points to an interesting but relatively standard cat and mouse journalist v. killer series buoyed by intelligent actors doing good work. A kind of Zodiac in a new era with a longer running time, if you will. Then you start to notice things don’t quite fit. Kirby seems to forget which desk is hers. Someone interacts with another person like they’re old friends despite that person seemingly not recognizing them at all. Lighting shifts. Makeup and fashion styles change. By the time you start to notice, you can’t stop. And if you watch an episode again, you see it started almost immediately.
Again—keeping it vague for spoiler reasons–this kind of plot element can absolutely derail a show if not done precisely. It can take something thoughtful and serious and moor in the realm of the silly and ridiculous—and not in a fun way. That’s where Moss is so important. By now, the actor has demonstrated a plethora of skills, but two of them are especially important here. First, she embodies women with trauma with lived-in skill. She manages to do it in project after project without ever feelings same-y. Second, she can sell viewers even the highest concept plot device as natural. Check out her work in The Invisible Man to witness someone acting against a floating knife and just selling the hell out of it. Moss keeps Shining Girls grounded despite the increasingly wild events she encounters.
Plenty of the credit needs to go to crew members as well. Without the skillful work of Production Designer Kelly McGehee, Art Director Martha Sparrow, Set Decorator Jeanelle Marie, Costume Designer Sonu Mishra, and Makeup Artist DeShawn Bowman, Shining Girls doesn’t have the quality of details that are easy to miss at first glance, but always present. Likewise, without the collaboration of Cinematographers Bonnie Elliott and Robert McLachlan with Editors Hugo Diaz and Blake Maniquis, the scenes could’ve given up too much too soon.
The hooks will be fully deployed by the end of the first episode with its undeniable reveal. Shining Girls deploys some big twists, certainly. The skill in front of and behind the camera, however, will make buying in easy.
Shining Girls is chasing down the facts every Friday on AppleTV+.