In the wake of HBO’s critical and popular success with “Big Little Lies,” the comparisons to the new limited series “Sharp Objects” — premiering June 7 at the ATX Festival in Austin, Texas, before its first airing on July 8 — are almost too easy to make. Like the first season of “Lies,” “Objects” is entirely directed by the flashy auteur Jean-Marc Vallée and includes among its cast gifted female performers over 40 who aren’t strangers to attending the Oscars. (“Lies” had Nicole Kidman and Reese Witherspoon, among others; “Objects” stars Amy Adams and Patricia Clarkson.) And like “Lies,” it’s based off a genre novel — “Gone Girl” author Gillian Flynn’s debut — whose mystery it pumps up with quick cuts, dream sequences, and jumps in time.
But the more obvious comparison, as HBO’s bid for a next major limited series unfolds, becomes to a show that’s less heralded these days: “Sharp Objects” could well serve as “True Detective,” Season 3. It shares that show’s curiosity about evil and its unwillingness to settle for anything less than its version of psychological truth, no matter how demanding. Its handling of truly twisted subject matter (in scripts by Marti Noxon and Flynn herself) is frank and unblinking, digging out insight about the most damaged of people and the harm they do to themselves and to others. With a cast led by Adams operating at the peak of her abilities, “Sharp Objects” is dazzlingly itself, a show in thrall to the horror of its premise but one that finds nuance within unremitting darkness.
Adams plays Camille Preaker, a St. Louis newspaper journalist whose relationship with her editor is fraught; he wants to push her to do her best work even while aware that she’s as delicate, and as scarred, as a shattered, pasted-together piece of china. He sends her to Wind Gap, the southern Missouri town where Camille grew up, in order to investigate a potential serial killer of young girls. Soon enough after she arrives, a new victim is discovered, but the story is hard to write. Too many adults in Wind Gap speak only in pleasantries. Camille’s ties to the town are meant to help her story; her family can open doors and she understands the local culture. But Camille’s mother, the town’s benevolent queen bee (Clarkson), stands in the way of her story even while hosting her in her mansion, and everything Camille knows about the world of Wind Gap, she holds in contempt.
Camille stalks through the town in a schmatte of dark sweater and jeans, even as her sources are in pastels or high-school cheerleading uniforms. Her young half-sister (Eliza Scanlen) plays a belle-in-training at home, fetishistically arranging her dollhouse, but embraces her bone-deep similarity to Camille: Both were born to rebel. The difference, though, is that Camille can’t even pretend to fit in. Sometimes she seems to be piercing a local culture of cant and phony sentiment, and sometimes she just seems angry to be there at all. Her reporting process is studded with nights spent drinking herself insensate, sometimes with a detective assigned to the case (Chris Messina) and sometimes with no more company than herself and a bottle. It’s a habit that alternately blunts her growing sense of paranoia and sharpens her recollections of growing up with a sister who died under mysterious circumstances; sometimes, when she loses control, we get a glimpse of the scars etched on her skin, a cruel dictionary Camille carries with her.
Adams, her voice dropped an octave, slowed to a drawl, and sharpened with distrust, is simply superb; her character’s trajectory, an eddy around the drain as she drowns, needs an actress with the resourcefulness to surprise us. A scene late in the season, in which she stares at a sexual partner with genuine and frightening hunger in her eyes, startled me, and made me rewind; it taught me something hard and painful about her character long after I’d become acquainted with her hungers and her flaws.
A performance like Adams’ is a necessary element in a story that could, thanks to the baroqueness of its twists, too easily be all shock and too little value. It’s a leavening element to Clarkson, who’s delivering a deliciously loony turn as a Tennessee Williams heroine who took a wrong turn and ended up in the 2010s. Her Adora governs her mansion with eerie placidity that gives way to barely controllable rage; her floors are inlaid with ivory, and a viewer senses that Adora could well have shot the elephants herself, then found a way to blame them for getting in the way of her gun.
One gives oneself away to the story, even as it becomes increasingly clear there’s no reason for Camille to be staying with Adora. The swirl of memories and the tangle of love and perverse loyalty around them is headily intoxicating, spurred on by Vallée’s heavy touch with shifts between memory and reality. (The auteur’s trademark style, familiar from films including “Wild,” is actually better-suited to this story than it was to “Big Little Lies,” in which he was a bit more restrained.) Logic falls away, even as the mechanics of the story, pushing Camille and her family closer to the center of the mystery, tick forward with cruelly relentless momentum; Camille feels her way towards solving the case by intuition and by clues seeded in memory.
The mystery at the heart of “Sharp Objects” is shrewdly constructed and coolly elegant, even as all around it explodes with fervid, summer-in-the-Ozarks steam. I’ll admit to missing one element of “Big Little Lies” in Vallée’s latest—that show’s big, beating heart, and its ability to seed clear arguments in the midst of its soapy splendor. “Sharp Objects'” heart is twisted, and its vision of the world is not what might be but what we’re stuck with, families who torture one another and townspeople who look the other way. As a detective story, it’s top-of-the-line, and its detective, a reporter who’s too close to her story and far too removed from compassion and from a clear understanding of reality, is a character that will endure long after the mystery is solved.
TV Review: “Sharp Objects”
Limited series (eight episodes, seven watched for review): HBO, Sun. July 8, 9 p.m.
Credits: Executive producers: Jason Blum, Charles Layton, Jessica Rhoades, Amy Adams, Gillian Flynn, Marti Noxon, Jean-Marc Vallée, Nathan Ross, and Gregg Fienberg
Cast: Amy Adams, Patricia Clarkson, Chris Messina, Eliza Scanlen, Elizabeth Perkins, and Matt Craven