I know a lot of people are hoping HBO’s Sharp Objects will be our next Big Little Lies, a guilty pleasure we don’t have to feel guilty about watching — or washing down with a crisp California chardonnay or a splashy rosé.
HBO’s official trailer for its latest limited series, starring Amy Adams and premiering Sunday, has registered more than 11 million views on YouTube since early June. That’s what the longing looks like for a show that, like Big Little Lies, is based on a bestselling murder-mystery, with A-list talent.
So how do you feel about vodka? Cheap whiskey? Amaretto sours? Because while neither drama shies from showing us women who aren’t always very nice, the Southern Gothic Sharp Objects drinks differently, and could go down less smoothly, than Big Little Lies, which cut some of its bitterness with enticing views of oceanfront real estate.
Different is good. Stories by and about women aren’t all the same, and it looks as if HBO, whose pipeline includes a subtitled, Italian-language adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend, is committed to telling more of them.
Sharp Objects is based on the debut novel of Gone Girl author Gillian Flynn, and stars Adams, a five-time Oscar nominee and undoubtedly a contender in next year’s Emmys, as Camille Preaker. In Sunday’s premiere, Camille, a reporter for a St. Louis paper, is dispatched by her well-meaning editor (Miguel Sandoval) to her Missouri hometown to write about the unsolved murder of one young girl and the disappearance of another.
Created by Marti Noxon (Dietland, Buffy the Vampire Slayer), the eight-episode show is directed by Jean-Marc Vallée (Dallas Buyers Club, Wild), who also directed the first season of Big Little Lies, which was adapted by David E. Kelley from a Liane Moriarty bestseller. (The second season of that star-heavy series — returning by popular demand in 2019, with Meryl Streep joining a cast that already includes Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, Shailene Woodley, Zöe Kravitz, and Laura Dern — is being directed by Andrea Arnold.)
I first read Flynn’s 2006 novel years ago, long before Gone Girl, and if you’d asked me at the time about an adaptation, I’d probably have guessed Lifetime movie or miniseries. The prose was strong. The story wasn’t my favorite. The damaged woman at its center also wasn’t who I was yet used to seeing — before Showtime’s Homeland and Nurse Jackie and long before Hulu’s also very dark and women-centered The Handmaid’s Tale — as the focus of prestige programming.
So Sharp Objects arrives on television at a good time.
Beyond the show’s distinctive vision of Camille’s hometown of Wind Gap as a place where mean girls race around on roller skates, Adams — as a woman who has pain written all over her — is the best reason to stick with Sharp Objects as it winds its way, sometimes a mite slowly, through twisted mysteries with deep roots. (Sophia Lillis, of It fame, plays the young Camille, and her physical performance, along with her notable resemblance to Adams, convincingly blends into their shared character.)
We’re living through a particularly rich period for television about women, or at least with more interesting roles for them. But so many of the dramas involve things being done to women, by men.
Sharp Objects suggests that matriarchy, too, can have its issues.
Exhibit A would be Adora Crellin (Patricia Clarkson), the fretful queen bee of Wind Gap, Mo., and Camille’s mother, a woman who is about as happy to see her oldest daughter show up at her front door as she would be to greet an invading army.
Camille is not much happier to be there, but then newspaper travel budgets can be tight.
I may not completely buy the notion of the fatherly editor who sends a troubled reporter on the road as a form of therapy, but I believe totally in the one who hands an out-of-town assignment to the reporter who has a free place to stay.
Stories about missing and murdered girls are attention-getters, a fact that Sharp Objects both criticizes and exploits as Camille, with occasional long-distance prodding from Sandoval’s character, goes about shaping her narrative.
Wind Gap’s police chief (Matt Craven) has no interest in helping even a homegrown reporter, while Richard Willis (Chris Messina), the Kansas City police detective brought in to help investigate the murder, seems interested in getting to know both Wind Gap and Camille, not necessarily in that order.
Eliza Scanlen plays Amma, the much younger half-sister Camille barely knows. Amma, in turn, never knew their long-dead middle sister, Marian (Lulu Wilson).
Sharp Objects is full of people who should know each other and really don’t, and fuller still of people you might not want to get too close to. Roller skating aside, its portrait of Wind Gap leans a bit on small-Southern-town cliches.
Big Little Lies trafficked in its own cliches — helicopter parents playing schoolyard politics, the messy private lives of the obscenely rich — but its most satisfying moments involved women who saw, and supported, one another.
Sisterhood in Wind Gap isn’t so powerful, and Camille’s isolation is palpable as she reconnects with people from her past in what at times feels like the worst high school reunion ever.
HBO made all but the final episode available to critics, as it did with Big Little Lies before its premiere. Never having read Big Little Lies probably helped shape my opinion of the series — if nothing else, I was eager to see the finale and find out whether I’d guessed right about at least one major plot point. (I had, and so, I’ll bet, had a lot of viewers.)
This time, I’m pretty sure I know what’s coming, but I’m still curious to see how Flynn’s denouement plays onscreen, and about how viewers will feel after they drink it to the last drop.
9 p.m. Sunday, HBO.