Television sharp

Published on August 24th, 2018 | by Noah Dimitrie

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Sharp Objects

You think HBO’s Sharp Objects is boring?  No, man — YOU’RE boring.  Deliberately paced Sharp Objects is one of the best shows of the year.

Many casual TV viewers will call Sharp Objects “boring.” I think Jean-Marc Vallee and Co. should take that as a compliment.

It is, after all, surely accurate to describe the HBO mini-series’ premise as familiar — perhaps even all-too-familiar. I mean, stop me if you’ve heard this one before: a reporter who fled her small hometown for the big city is assigned the coverage of a series of child murders back home; she obviously has a dark past and an even darker present, and obviously her rich mother is conniving, and obviously she hooks up with a hot city detective who’s also in search of some answers. The series, based on the novel by Gone Girl writer Gillian Flynn, does not shy away from being obvious, in the way that candid conversations and blank stares across small-town Missouri bars can be obvious. In fact, it rather artfully embraces the obvious, the predictable, the familiar relationship it has with its audience, and it channels that all into one of the most engrossingly deconstructive as well as emotionally riveting mystery series in quite some time.

So yes, the series is — for lack of a better term — boring, but only in the most romantic sense of the word. Jean-Marc Vallee, the Canadian whiz-kid who is quickly becoming HBO’s in-house director, trusts the nuanced connective tissue of creator Marti Noxon’s project. With her sparsely plotted scripts, she emphasizes the banality of small-town American culture. Camille Preeker (Amy Adams) does battle with the banality of unspoken family dysfunction, the banality of addiction, the banality of being a reporter on a case that is simultaneously obvious and confusing, and the banality of dealing with anxiety and depression, especially when confronted with signifiers of her past. This is mostly contained within Camille’s increasingly unreliable perception; Adams’ performance captures a suitably bleak confusion as her character blurs the past and the present together in disorienting ways.

Through seven of its eight episodes (the finale airs this Sunday), the show has revealed more and more of the scars — the evidence of Camille’s self-harm — that signify wounds which are being ripped open for our very eyes. This is not only due to the confounding case, but also to the close proximity her step-sister — and uncannily enough, her defacto doppleganger — has to the murders.

After the deaths of her two young friends, the calculated family matriarch Adora (Patricia Clarkson) coddles and caresses Amma, who is appears pious by-day but is quite rebellious-by-night — collateral damage from her mother’s emotional suffocation. Adora also attempts to protect her young daughter from her eldest, Camille, and her so-called “worldly, morose influence.” She coldly brushes off her investigative presence in the town until finally laying it on the line in episode three; her disdain for her daughter is captured in a simple declaration: “You smell ripe.” The hatred, the unspoken rage against these two and what they stand for produces a palpable atmosphere and Vallee backs it up through carefully crafted flashbacks of a painful past that has produced fractured memories. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that Clarkson is spine-chilling as Adora, a wealthy woman who commands a terrifying demeanor over her family’s storied domain. All of these riveting components, which may come across as tedious melodrama on paper, form a solid foundation for a mystery series that does not rely on investigative procedural conflict to keep us entertained.

As technically belonging to a genre built on suspenseful action and sharp plot twists, the series is remarkably unconventional with regard to its antagonist, who is not your typical serial-killer villain. Instead, Adora is villainous to Camille by triggering her mental illness, by poking at all her most vulnerable spots in ways only family can do. And in the town of Wind Gap — the town wonderfully fleshed-out as carnal and melodramatic — Adora’s control knows no bounds. Frustratingly for Camille, her younger sister goes out at night, parties in the woods, takes drugs; she tests fate to prove a point to Camille, to make her jealous. And while Camille initially resents her for it, she eventually begins to feel seduced by her unhinged liberty. That is where the mystery, the intrigue lies; it is an emotional intrigue, yet one that bears all of the bleak tonal signifiers of the thriller genre. Vallee and Noxin find the mystery in where these deadly familial mind games will take Camille, and whether the truth about the case is closer to home than she realizes.

I know that may seem like the write-up on the back of a dime-story pulp novel, but it’s the execution that makes this series so compelling. In the spirit of Twin Peaks, Sharp Objects’ Wind Gap is a timeless town that is all too perfect for urban legends and drudged up memories, and Vallee mines every inch of that space and the unique townsfolk that occupy it, bringing all of the unspoken conflict and hypocrisy to the surface. For some, this form of TV may require too much exertion of patience, which seems to come in small quantities with viewers these days. “Boring” is, after all, not very exciting; there aren’t too many plot twists or violent chases, and even the melodrama is purposely fractured. But the fascinating and unique purpose the “boring” serves is it allows for the construction of believable worlds, both external and internal. We perceive the ebbs and flows of this town, and the reasons for their suspicions over the murders. And we can see how Camille, who would rather think of herself as an outsider, finds out she’s been shaped by the town more than she thought possible. It takes the filmic realization of that sleepy, small-town “boredom” to evoke that in an impactful way.

With last Sunday’s episode, we finally got a real plot twist that I’m sure many viewers were desperately craving. And I have a hunch that we’re still in for some good, old-fashioned twists and turns in the finale too. The strength of the series is that it doesn’t completely abandon the genre roots from which it mutated, it just finds new ways of contextualizing them. Besides, they’ve set up endless mysteries, some of which, like that of the ‘Woman in White,’ reached a resolution last week. But the question of the two equally suspicious family members of the dead girls, or the uncanny warnings Camille’s subconscious has been giving her about Amma as she falls deeper under her spell — those are all perfectly loose ends that pave the way for an intense finale. Because, while the show revels in small-town melodrama, it’s the kind of melodrama that can bloom into riveting suspense in a moments notice. I can’t say I predict anything in particular for the finale, but I do believe that the show’s occasional repetition, it’s ardent hammering home of themes will be payed off in full.

But who knows, maybe we’ll just get more loose ends and weird forest sex. And if that’s the case, I believe the show—through ambition alone—has earned the confidence to follow through completely. It may not be the most crowd-pleasing way to go, but then again, Sharp Objects — as its name evokes — seems intentionally geared for jaded film and television fans. And to us, “boring” is a quality of ever-changing value. Is it boring to explore the state of femininity in a town so marred by a pattern of tolerated male abuse? Is it boring to immensely capture the pain and heartache of depression and self-harm? Is it boring to place that depression in the context of a privileged family chalk full of unspoken resentment? I think it’s safe to say that what the series is investigating is purposeful; even if it is not as visceral, it is always hauntingly compelling. Thus, Sharp Objects’ deeply cinematic brand of “boring” is a refreshing change of pace.

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About the Author

Noah Dimitrie

currently pitches his tent in Toronto, though his roots are still in his hometown of Saskatoon. His ambition in life is to not go completely broke from seeing movies and patronizing used book stores. He is a writer of fiction, art criticism, and the occasional hot take on Reddit. His mom still does his taxes.



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