In lieu of telling you what Apple TV + ‘s Shining Girls is really about on a plot level – the core premise of the source material has been reconfigured into a spoiler – I’ll tell you what the eight-episode series is about on a practical level.
No single actor in the past 25 years has a more reliable television track record than Elisabeth Moss. Although Shining Girls may not instantly stand as a key data point on her unimpeachable resumé, it’s further proof that when it comes to audience buy-in, whether the story is seemingly conventional or dauntingly out-there, having Moss at the top of the call sheet is as close to a guarantee as you’re ever going to get.
The Bottom Line
Effective as a character study, less so as a thriller.
The premise of Shining Girls is both seemingly conventional and dauntingly out-there.
Moss plays Kirby Mazrachi, a research assistant at the Chicago Sun-Times. Kirby lives with her punk rocker mom (Amy Brenneman). Six years earlier, Kirby was attacked and left for dead by a vicious assailant who was never caught, leaving her withdrawn and scarred, physically and psychologically.
Suspecting that her attack might not have been an isolated event, Kirby begins investigating with the help of Dan (Wagner Moura), a reporter with demons of his own. This sets off a game of cat-and-mouse with an untraceable serial killer (Jamie Bell) who may already have targeted his next victim (Phillipa Soo’s Jin-Sook), a researcher at the Adler Planetarium.
Pretty familiar, if not inherently conventional, right?
Not quite. See, Kirby is experiencing unexplainable alterations to her reality. Sometimes it’s little things, like an almost unnoticeable change in her haircut or finding herself suddenly working at a desk across the room from her normal desk. But sometimes Kirby is going home and discovering that she has a husband who definitely wasn’t there before. That’s the sort of thing that either could mess with your head or could, possibly, be a product of your head already being messed up.
Anybody who has read Lauren Beukes’ 2013 novel is already a tiny bit confused. The shifts to Kirby’s reality have mostly been created from whole cloth, and the mystery of what’s happening with Kirby and her pursuer on the page isn’t much of a mystery at all. It’s probably the first sentence of any summary.
Beukes’ book has a juicy hook, but I didn’t think it really delved especially well into the ramifications of that hook. And in giving roughly half of the novel over to the perspective of the antagonist, it undermined The Shining Girls – the “The” has also gone missing in the transition to TV – as an exploration of surviving trauma.
TV showrunner Silka Luisa (Strange Angel) has given the book a complete overhaul and, for the most part, the changes are for the better. Instead of offering immediate explanations, Shining Girls prefers to ask viewers to experience the increasingly unsettling events through Kirby’s eyes. Chances are good that even without knowing the book, you’ll catch on well before Kirby and Dan do – and there’s an even better chance that their failure to ask the right questions will become irritating. But even that’s tied into giving Kirby a less direct character journey than she was given on the page; if you want victim-seeks-vengeance drama, Shining Girls avoids giving you Hollywood’s favorite shortcut between damage and catharsis.
Sometimes Kirby seems upright and quick to smile, other times slouched and eyes downcast, like she’s hoping to sink into a chair or blend into the wallpaper. Maybe the shifts in her reality are supernatural in origin, but perhaps her attack left her unable to align actual reality with her perception of it. Maybe something cosmic has caused her to suddenly have a husband who wasn’t there before, or perhaps her memories are so warped that she can’t connect the things that used to make her happy to the life she’s now living.
Because of how convincingly Moss plays Kirby’s dilemma, it’s completely possible to pretend that the trippier genre elements either aren’t there at all or don’t matter. Moss is used to play before-and-after versions of characters – sometimes in the strict chronology of a Mad Men or West Wing – but just as frequently to slipping between them, as she has done for years on Handmaid’s Tale. She’s performed variations on this so often and so well that you won’t watch Shining Girls thinking there’s anything revelatory.
But rather than finding Moss’ ability to mine gradations of intensity rote, I found comfort in the assurance that no matter the degree of her character’s torment, she’ll never skip steps or escalate abruptly in the name of an Emmy-reel moment. Kirby is smart and capable, but she’s an open wound – and unlike the horrible scarring on her chest, the trauma can’t be covered with a baggy sweater.
The Shining Girls series directors (starting with Michelle MacLaren and then executive producer Daina Reid and, for two sturdy episodes, Moss) build out the uncertainty and unsteadiness of Kirby’s characterization more effectively than the progression of the plot. Sometimes she lives in a world of labyrinthine staircases and underlit rooms, where the lively chaos of Chicago threatens to become incapacitating. But it isn’t monotonous. There are bursts of color and light, manifestations of hope or optimism. The series gets more contrast from Soo’s character, who we know is on the brink of something awful, but lives unaware in the present in a world of cosmic openness.
The nature of what’s truly happening in the book is reduced to something mechanical. The series doesn’t want to allow that reduction to occur – it wants to give the confounding elements real gravity – but what it lacks, ironically, is a clear sense of mechanics. Even once you know generally what’s happening, the hows and whys never really materialize, which is something more likely to bother viewers approaching Shining Girls as a thriller than as a character study.
It doesn’t help that none of the supporting players around Moss have much to play. Moura conveys a bruised persistence, but Dan has no real personality (though I appreciate the series eschewing the book’s unconscionably bad flirtations between Dan and Kirby). Bell is effectively creepy, but never truly scary or disturbing. Soo does as well as she can with a character who shares only a name with a figure from the book, but she can’t sell multiple cumbersome mini-monologues explaining the story’s symbolism and I doubt anybody else could. I liked Chris Chalk in a gentle-but-underwritten role as one of Kirby’s co-workers and Madeline Brewer as a dancer with a peculiar specialty, and I appreciated how many of the background parts were cast with what are clearly veteran Chicago thespians.
When I finished the book, my reaction boiled down to: “Well that was a good idea that didn’t amount to much, but at least it’s tidy.” After watching eight episodes of the series, I felt that there was an effort to make it amount to something significantly more nuanced. Still, the ending is tidy enough to leave me with bigger-picture questions (not the least of which relate to the title, which is fuzzy on the page and nearly meaningless here).
Apparently, Apple TV + views Shining Girls as an ongoing series, so there’s at least a chance that Luisa and company will be able to regroup and figure out compelling answers. Even if I don’t have a clue where the story is supposed to go, several decades of Peak TV have proven that I’ll willingly follow Moss wherever it goes.