How into female true crime stories are we?
On Friday, June 13, 1980, Texas housewife Candy Montgomery murdered her friend/ frenemy Betty Gore by striking her 41 times with an ax. The gory story (41 times!) was turned into the 1990 CBS made-for-TV movie A Killing in a Small Town starring Barbara Hershey. Hershey won an Emmy and then the gruesome crime faded into obscurity.
Now, 42 years later—with a plethora of streaming platforms looking for content that will create buzz—there are not one but two series tackling the heinous crime. Elizabeth Olsen and Lily Rabe will headline Love & Death for HBO Max later this year. But first up is Hulu’s Candy, starring Jessica Biel as the title character and Melanie Lynskey as her victim. The series will air over five consecutive days on Hulu ending with the finale debuting on, appropriately, Friday, May 13th. Streaming release schedules are all over the place these days, but at least this one makes sense. A new episode dropping every day in the miniseries style of the 1980s is quite apropos.
The series is steeped in 1980s nostalgia. When we first meet the Montgomery family they are planning to go see The Empire Strikes Back (which came out three weeks before the murder). From the fashion, to the hairstyles, to the cars, the décor, and the music, Candy gets all the little details of the era just right. I had such wistfulness for my childhood when Betty is shown making orange juice from frozen concentrate and Candy whips up a batch of Kool-Aid. The specificity will transport the viewer.
But here’s the thing: Fashions and styles may come and go, but the cattiness of suburban moms is timeless. Candy is popular among the moms in her church group. They think she’s a hoot who isn’t afraid to speak her mind. By contrast, Betty isn’t well-liked and is ostracized. Moms can be quite cliquey and despite the fact they all attend the same church, Betty isn’t part of the in-crowd.
The other women don’t quite know what to make of Betty’s overt unhappiness. They’ve given her the nickname “Saint Betty of Perpetual Distress.” “Jesus forgive me but I can never tell if she loves children too much or not at all,” a fellow mom laments.
Depressed, lonely, and insecure, Betty hates it when her husband Allan Gore (Pablo Schreiber) goes on a business trip and leaves her alone with their baby. Their shaky marriage is riddled with tension and Betty’s continual disappointment. Meanwhile, Candy and Pat Montgomery (Timothy Simons) have a seemingly happy marriage. Pat is devoted and great with the kids, but Candy is bored. Her days are filled with driving carpool, doing laundry, making meals, and volunteering at church. She decides an affair is the way to add some excitement in her life and isn’t shy about telling people her plan.
The rest of the tragic tale is best left for viewers to discover for themselves—don’t Google the story before you watch. Candy lets the tension build and wisely leaves the details of what happened that terrible day until the fifth episode. The series is far more interesting if you don’t know what’s coming next. After it airs, Google away. I particularly recommend the 1984 Texas Monthly article “Love and Death in Silicon Prairie Parts I and II.”
Candy is clearly not a criminal. “She half-assed the clean-up, left the murder weapon behind, and took the time to take a shower,” the deputy (played by a guest star I’m not allowed to tell you about) surveying the crime scene says. Is she a woman who snapped? Was she a psychopath? Delusional? In one chilling scene, Candy, always the hostess, serves appetizers while she glibly explains away her atrocious crime. “There’s a perfectly reasonable explanation. All the doctors said so,” Candy says calmly. “I’ve been controlled all my life and I didn’t even know it.” Her lawyer Don Crowder (Raúl Esparza) shamelessly works every angle for his client. But Candy stops short of making a final judgement on its title character’s degree of culpability.
Biel, who also serves as an executive producer on the series, disappears behind Candy’s accent, permed hairstyle and oversized glasses. With Candy’s flashes of panic, we get glimpses of how deep in denial she is about what she has done. Candy desperately wants everything to “go back to normal” and doesn’t seem to fully comprehend that’s not possible. Biel’s Candy is a force to be reckoned with. Despite all the evidence, no one wanted to believe she had done it.
On the other side, no one does an insecure woman who feels she is being overlooked and ignored better than Lynskey. She exudes a woman simmering with rage right beneath the surface. Lynskey’s plaintive expressions speak volumes even when she doesn’t utter a word, which leads to a very powerful scene in the finale. The truth of how these two women came into conflict when Candy was merely stopping by to pick up a bathing suit, and what really transpired on that fateful day, only they truly know. The rest is left to Betty’s account and the police and prosecutor’s investigation. Can a crime this evil ever truly be explained? Probably not.
With the two women at the center of the story, their husbands are portrayed as nice guys who didn’t fully understand the women they were married to. Schreiber and Simmons are mostly relegated to bad wigs (such bad wigs) and we don’t understand their marriages or where things went so very wrong.
Is this a story that needs to be told again by HBO Max? Again, probably not. The strength of Candy rests in this being an old crime that we know very little about. Being first out of the gate works greatly to Candy’s advantage. The series will leave you with more questions than answers, right down to the kicker of a final line.
Candy premieres Monday, May 9th on Hulu, followed by one new episode daily until the finale on Friday, May 13.
Amy Amatangelo, the TV Gal®, is a Boston-based freelance writer and a member of the Television Critics Association. She wasn’t allowed to watch much TV as a child and now her parents have to live with this as her career. You can follow her on Twitter (@AmyTVGal).
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