Our mind plays tricks on us.
Our memories expand and contract. Become fuzzy and clear. Weave in and out of our subconscious. We can remember sad memories more happily or happy ones with more sadness. We are often the most unreliable narrator of our own lives.
This idea comes to life in the new HBO miniseries Sharp Objects. St. Louis Chronicle reporter Camille Preaker (Amy Adams) returns to her small Southern hometown of Wind Gap to cover the murder of one preteen girl and the disappearance of another. Camille has left Wind Gap and her overbearing mother Adora (Patricia Clarkson) behind. It’s not just the small-town gossip Camille has escaped from; it’s also the haunting memory of her younger sister Marion’s death. Adora and Camille’s step-father, Alan (Henry Czerny), now have Amma (Eliza Scanlen), a 15-year-old trying to escape the overbearing confines of Wind Gap much like Camille did years before her. Simultaneously delicate and destructive, Scanlen is an all caps DISCOVERY. Like, when she’s winning an Academy Award in a few years, we will all remember her first big role.
A functional alcoholic (the kind who pours vodka into her water bottles and packs a garbage bag full of nips for her trip), Camille’s memories are blurred not only by time but also by a haze of booze. Adams is fantastic and mesmerizing to watch, her traumas and damage a mystery to both her and the viewer. Sophia Lillis, who plays the younger Camille, looks so much like Adams, and so distinctly captures Adams’ facial expressions, posture and cadence, that I immediately paused my screener and went to confirm that younger Camille wasn’t just Adams with some very impressive make-up and youthful lighting.
I don’t think it’s overstating things to say this may be the role of Clarkson’s career. Her fragile Adora is the kind of woman who hangs out in glamorous dressing gowns just because and who can devastate her daughters with a scathing comment all while coming across as someone who is unaware that her words are like tiny swords. The hold she still has over Camille is palpable and oppressive. Her house is a Victorian horror show. Her dead daughter’s room is exactly as it was decades before. “I’m happy you’re here, but please don’t embarrass me again,” she tells Camille. In less capable hands, Adora would be a trite caricature. But Clarkson breathes depth into Adora with every line and gesture. Just watch the way she brushes Camille’s hair out of her face. It will give you chills.
I read Sharp Objects back in 2012 after devouring Gone Girl and wanting to read everything else author Gillian Flynn had written. I remember thinking at the time that Sharp Objects, which Flynn wrote in 2006, really exemplified how much Flynn had matured as a writer. Maybe I was just on high alert for a big twist after reading Gone Girl, but I figured out the surprise reveal in Sharp Objects almost immediately and spent the majority of the book waiting for it to occur.
That doesn’t happen in the eight-episode series, as director Jean-Marc Vallée and the writers (including Flynn and executive producer Marti Noxon) weave in and out of the past and present, bending time to the point that we sometimes forget the murder mysteries even exist. Drenched in sepia-toned melancholy, Sharp Objects is a glorious study in Southern Gothic archetypes, the family ties that bind, and the small-town community that suffocates. “In Wind Gap, every woman gets a nasty label if they don’t conform to the rules of engagement,” Camille says. Oh, if only Flynn and Tennessee Williams could have written something together.
Because the murder mysteries take a back seat to the dysfunction and psychological trauma, Kansas City detective Richard Willis (Chris Messina) and police chief Vickery (Matt Craven), while terrific in their roles, are often afterthoughts. But this is the kind of series which brings life to the cliché that there are no small parts. Will Chase (Smash) is a bundle of unhinged simmering rage as the grieving father of the first murder victim. D.B. Sweeney is devastating as the father of the second missing girl.
As he demonstrated in Big Little Lies, Vallée understands communities, whether they be rich coastal cities or small Southern towns. Here he captures a town where everyone knows everything about everybody else except, of course, for the secrets and lies. “He’s been crying up a storm. I don’t mean to be mean, but it’s a bit much,” one of the women says of the dead girl’s grieving brother, John (Taylor John Smith), while at the funeral reception.
From Buffy the Vampire Slayer on, Noxon has had a unique understanding of women. She’s also behind AMC’s Dietland, this season’s other exploration of the female psyche and the damage women, in particular, are so good at doing to themselves.
This one is not to be missed. Sharp Objects cuts deep.
Sharp Objects premieres Sunday, July 8 at 9 p.m. on HBO.
Amy Amatangelo, the TV Gal®, is a Boston-based freelance writer, a member of the Television Critics Association and the Assistant TV Editor for Paste. She wasn’t allowed to watch much TV as a child and now her parents have to live with this as her career. You can follow her on Twitter (@AmyTVGal) or her blog .