Is Apple TV+ thriller too mysterious for its own good?

Shining Girls, The new Apple TV+ thriller based on the 2013 novel by Lauren Beukes, brings Apple TV+ into competition with a number of other streamers’ giant successes.

Elisabeth Moss stars in this story of disintegrating realities and identities, which mixes a dash of The Handmaid’s Tale, a bit of True Detective, a hair of The Killing and just a little Sharp Objects.

Will this particular tale of depressive survivors catch on? It might be a touch too mysterious to sustain its hallucinatory story.

Shining Girls recap: First three episodes

It’s 1964, and Harper Curtis (played by Jamie Bell) is creepily hitting on a little girl on the front steps of her home. He grabs a bee out of the air and pulls its wings off. The girl doesn’t like this at all, but she’s nevertheless mesmerized enough to accept a gift he leaves for her — a little plastic horse.

Fast forward to 1992 and Kirby Mazrachi (Moss), a survivor of a vicious assault, is having a hard time living her life. She lives with her mom (Amy Brenneman), and works at a newspaper, where her tenure in the file room ends soon.

But something happens. The detective (Kevin Gudahl) in charge of Kirby’s case tells her they have a suspect (Brian Boland). Kirby learns the suspect’s identity when she finds the notes of an alcoholic reporter named Dan Velazquez (Wagner Moura), who’s having a little trouble of his own, having been more or less disgraced and almost arrested for the way he treated his wife. Plus, his editor (Erika Alexander) is a little sick of him.

Kirby goes to the suspect’s house ready to confront him but when she hears him speak, she knows it’s not the guy who hurt her. Dan happens to be arriving to interview the guy when Kirby runs, panting, out of his house. Dan buys her coffee, and she explains that she knows her attacker is still out there.

What’s going on here?

Something odd happens when he brings Kirby in to give a statement, though. She sees herself getting examined by a woman named Iris. But halfway through the exam, she looks up and Iris is now a man in his 60s. When Dan asks why she’s screaming and freaking out, Kirby tries to ask where Iris went. But Iris was never there….

These incidents, where Kirby thinks she’s seeing something but isn’t, are now a frequent occurrence in her life. If she can’t catch the guy who hurt her, she might not get her version of reality back.

She’s not the only one who needs to stop him, either. Just as Kirby’s going home to an apartment that isn’t hers, Harper is attacking an astronomer named Jin-Sook (Phillipa Soo). And when Kirby does get home, her mom’s not there. But her husband Marcus (Chris Chalk), who we’ve seen as her co-worker until now, is.

It’s his birthday, and they’re throwing a party. Only Kirby doesn’t know any of the guests.

We’ll see if it sticks

There’s a lot of mysterious stuff going on in this show. But how much of it is real?
Photo: Apple TV+

Michelle McLaren directs the first two episodes of Shining Girls. She’s a TV veteran with a list of credits that reads like a Vulture best-of list. She’s worked on In Treatment, Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul, Game of Thrones, The Leftovers, The Walking Dead and on and on and on. McLaren’s very good at treating material with sobriety and fearlessness. And she works well in any given grammar.

Daina Reed jumps in to direct episode 3. Shining Girl star (and executive producer) Moss likely grabbed Reed after she directed a few episodes of her other show, The Handmaid’s Tale.

Both directors do a more than adequate job building the gross and unpredictable world of Shining Girls. Every environment is beautifully rendered by their cameras, to show off the maximum unsettling qualities of everything from records rooms to bars. At its best, the show calls to mind the hellish New York of Jane Campion’s In the Cut.

However, Shining Girls suffers from an identity problem it doesn’t show any signs of solving, judging by the first three episodes. This is going to be a spoiler if you haven’t read Lauren Beukes’ book, so skip the next paragraph if you don’t want to know where it’s heading.

Spoiler alert!

Shining Girls recap: There's something strange about Harper Curtis (played by Jamie Bell).
There’s something strange about Harper Curtis (played by Jamie Bell).
Photo: Apple TV+

Harper Curtis is a time traveler. He’s a man who traveled from the Great Depression to today. Shining Girls doesn’t let on about any of this at first. (If it plans to at all — no law says the show must be a faithful adaptation of Beukes’ book.) Instead, it focuses on the fact that Kirby is an unreliable narrator of the highest order. Her name might not be Kirby. She sometimes loses whole days. Sometimes her entire life is a misfiring memory.

This is obviously a fictitious version of very real trauma responses, but it does make getting any kind of a grip on what Shining Girls the show is supposed to be. If everything in Kirby’s reality can be erased in the blink of an eye, it can be really difficult to determine what we’re supposed to take away from any given scene. Why, for instance, is Kirby’s mom such a horrible pain in the hallucinations and very nice in reality? Which one of them is responsible for their failed relationship?

But questions like those are ultimately and necessarily of a much lesser importance to the issue of Harper Curtis killing people. So we have to both pay attention to the murder investigation and keep track of what’s real in Kirby’s life. As she says in episode three after describing her failing mental faculties, “No one should listen to me!”

How to handle an unreliable narrator?

If so … then how much of the investigation are we meant to believe is real or relevant? This is one too many mysteries for a single show with only six characters.

It isn’t all that gratifying watching the intense and flamboyantly Kirby’s personal life and investigation. For instance, when she approaches Jin-Sook to ask her about some evidence, she gets so lost thinking some stray thought that the other woman just walks away, confused.

I don’t blame her. Kirby’s too riddled with issues to be able to appear as a coherent figure. At any moment, she might decide none of this is real for us.

When it’s revealed that Kirby and Marcus are marriednot nearly enough is made of this. And there’s no scene where she tells her husband that she didn’t remember him, or that they were together for many years. And that just makes Kirby seem like a liar on top of all of her hallucinations, which again makes it tough to want to honey in on her version of events.

Shining Girls isn’t bad by any means, but I do need to be given a little more sturdy footing from the writers going forward. If this is going to be more than just a haunted-performer contest between Moss and Wagner Moura, we need a dramatic idea or two as coherent as their emotions. These are both great performers, but they can’t stare, cry, bleed, and sweat hard enough to straighten out a plot.

Watch Shining Girls on Apple TV+

Shining Girls premieres April 29 on Apple TV+. New episodes arrive on the following Fridays.

Rated: TV-MA

Watch on: Apple TV+

Scout Tafoya is a film and TV critic, director and creator of the long-running video essay series The Unloved for RogerEbert.com. He has written for The Village Voice, Film Comment, The Los Angeles Review of Books and Nylon Magazine. He is the author of Cinemaphagy: On the Psychedelic Classical Form of Tobe Hooper, the director of 25 feature films, and the director and editor of more than 300 video essays, which can be found at Patreon.com/honorszombie.

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