This has not been a good year for a certain Midwest state on screen. “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” depicted the Show-Me State as Hicksville, U.S.A., a place where racism runs rife and child murders go unsolved. And HBO’s new show “Sharp Objects” depicts Wind Gap, Missouri as, well, Hicksville, U.S.A., a place where small-mindedness runs rife and child murders go unsolved. If these unflattering depictions continue, Missouri should consider changing its nickname to the “Please-Don’t-Show-Me State.”
This has not been a good year for a certain cable TV giant either, if you believe certain reports. For the first time in 18 years, HBO failed to top the recently announced Emmy nominations, scoring four fewer nods than Netflix. To put some kind of perspective on it, the last time HBO failed to top the primetime Emmys list, Bruce Willis was winning the Outstanding Guest Actor in a Comedy award for his work on “Friends.” Yes, so long ago that “John McClane” was still worthy of acclaim.
There was also a recent New York Times report quoting HBO’s big cheese as saying America’s most famous TV brand must transform itself “from a boutique operation, with a focus on its signature Sunday night lineup, into something bigger and broader,” in order to compete with the Netflixes of this world. Ouch.
But before you start canceling that HBO subscription, it’s worth remembering that the cabler still has the two most nominated drama series this year (“Game of Thrones” and “Westworld”), and its hitman comedy “Barry” was one the most highly nominated new shows. If this is failure, there are at least three U.S. networks that would like a piece of it.
And it doesn’t take Nostradamus to predict that “Sharp Objects” is going to be receiving lots of shiny objects at next year’s Golden Globes and Emmys. This is a show that screams “prestige” so loudly, you may need to watch the first episode with the subtitles on.
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Just look at the talent: Five-time Oscar nominee Amy Adams in the lead role of Camille Preaker; indie queen Patricia Clarkson as her Bette Davis-esque mom Adora Crellin; Marti Noxon (“Mad Men”) as showrunner; Jean-Marc Vallée, who is fresh from his Emmy-winning success directing the first season of another HBO hit, “Big Little Lies”; and, of course, Gillian Flynn’s source novel.
I’ve been a big fan of Flynn’s work since she was the TV critic for Entertainment Weekly back in the days when it was impossible to confuse it for Us Weekly or People magazine. Her three novels are all great page-turners (2012’s “Gone Girl,” of course, spawned an entire industry of books with the word “Girl” in the title). As well as being taut, toxic thrillers, they all share a delight in peeling away veneers on seemingly happy relationships or respectable families.
Her debut novel, “Sharp Objects,” was published in 2006 and originally optioned as a movie back in 2008, to be directed by British filmmaker Andrea Arnold – who is, as luck would have it, now working on the second season of “Big Little Lies.” And the quirks don’t stop there: Adams was originally set to star in the movie adaptation of the third Flynn novel, “Dark Places,” but had to drop out and was replaced by Charlize Theron. (Given the tepid response to that 2015 movie, Theron would no doubt love for those roles to be reversed now.)
Despite only being a couple of episodes in, I feel confident in predicting that “Sharp Objects” will be the best adaptation of a Flynn novel yet. (As an aside, I’m also really looking forward to her upcoming Amazon remake of the brilliantly offbeat 2013 British thriller “Utopia.”) While the idea of someone returning to their crappy hometown to confront old demons isn’t exactly breaking any molds, “Sharp Objects” introduces us to such a wonderful cast of characters and such a dark, twisted tale that the familiarity of the setup is immaterial.
The show’s true strength comes from its oh-so-brief glimpses into the past and Camille’s deeply disturbed childhood. In fact, this works so well on screen that you could easily imagine it was originally conceived for television and later turned into a book, not the other way around.
If we overlook the pension plan that is Lois Lane in the “Superman”/”Justice League” franchise, Adams has always sought out fascinating characters – from the pregnant, super-optimistic young woman in “Junebug” and the ET-befriending linguist in “Arrival” to the intriguing-sounding part of Lynne Cheney in the Dick Cheney biopic “Backseat” later this year.
But she’s really hit the jackpot here with Camille – a thirtysomething journalist at the St. Louis Chronicle who, like an Amazon parcel delivered by drone, is damaged goods. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, but she drinks too much, smokes too much and is such a mess, she probably spends as much time sleeping in her car as actually driving it.
Yet it’s her past we really want to explore, and the reveal at the end of the first episode is a brilliant, shocking way of explaining – if we didn’t already get it – how the show earns its name.
Camille also does a great line in snark: After explaining that her hometown is full of “old money and trash,” she is asked which she is. “Trash, from old money” is the deadpan response. It is clear early on that when her editor, Curry (Miguel Sandoval), orders her to return to Wind Gap to cover the little-reported murder of a young girl and the disappearance of another, he is also hoping the exercise will prove cathartic for Camille – even if she isn’t exactly his star reporter at this point.
“People give a shit when you give a shit,” he tells her – which could also be the rather crass motto underlining this show, its talent elevating what sounds like a generic plotline into something far greater and ultimately rather haunting. It’s impossible to avoid the comparisons to another HBO show, “True Detective” (season one, at least), even if this is told solely from the reporter’s perspective.
No expense has been spared: There are two directors of photography and four editors credited – reflecting Vallée’s preference to get as much “in the can” as possible, using natural lighting that helps add to the gothic atmosphere at Adora’s opulent country house. But what they saved on lighting they spent on the soundtrack, securing the rights to a bunch of Led Zeppelin songs that must have cost an absolute fortune. But whatever they’re paying Clarkson is not enough, because she creeps the hell out of you with her portrayal of a southern belle who cares far more for her reputation than the well-being of her own children.
There’s also wonderful attention to detail: the recurring sound of fans (in hog farms, motels, homes); the squeaky car door and sputtering engine on Camille’s car; the sweat-stained shirt sticking to a detective’s back in the oppressive heat; the backwater police station with bizarre posters declaring “Anti-cruelty laws apply to all cats.” Altogether, it helps create one of the most absorbing shows of the year.
In the Chinese practice of feng shui, sharp objects are seen as sources of negative energy and aren’t recommended as presents. By contrast, HBO’s “Sharp Objects” is a gift you will definitely want to have in your home.