In a post-Lost existence, the way we watch television has changed. Eagle-eyed viewers now scour every last inch of a scene, looking for hidden clues as to what’s happening and why. They take to the internet to debate theories with like-minded fans. In turn, this has changed how some TV shows are written, ultimately altering how their stories are told. But not every show is going to find success as a puzzle that needs to be solved. Not every story is engaging enough to keep viewers entertained until the writers are ready to begin parceling out answers. And Apple TV+’s new drama Shining Girls exists somewhere in the middle of the spectrum.
Based on Lauren Beukes’ best-selling novel of the same name, the eight-episode limited series is set in the 1990s and stars Emmy Award winner (and perpetual nominee) Elisabeth Moss as Kirby Mazrachi, a promising journalist whose career is cut short after a brutal attack leaves her with lingering trauma and a frequently shifting reality. Upon discovering that a recent murder shares similarities to her own attack, Kirby—now working as a newspaper archivist for The Chicago Sun-Times—partners with troubled alcoholic reporter Dan Velazquez (Wagner Moura) to find the perpetrator and hopefully piece together what’s happening to her. What ensues is a compelling (though often confusing) meditation on trauma and the disorienting and terrifying way it can change one’s life and warp one’s reality. Only in this case, it’s not just a metaphor; Kirby’s reality really has been warped in the wake of her assault. Sometimes the shifts in her life are small—a new hairstyle, different clothes—but sometimes they’re much larger, like a different apartment or a husband who didn’t previously exist.
If this all sounds a bit strange, it’s because it is. Shining Girls is a mind-bending series that attempts to merge a story about trauma and the failings of law enforcement and the press in relation to victims of assault with the narrative beats of science-fiction as a means of making sense of a situation that rarely, if ever, has a logical explanation. It’s not always successful in this attempt to blend genres. While the show successfully immerses viewers in Kirby’s disorienting reality, thus making for an initially intriguing watch as viewers attempt to understand how and why Kirby’s life seems to change at random, Shining Girls doesn’t begin to offer answers until midway through its run, which will no doubt leave many viewers frustrated. But what might be worse is that, even after the show begins pulling back the curtain and letting viewers (and eventually Kirby) in on the truth, it doesn’t do enough to support the answers it offers up.
Running parallel to Kirby’s story and investigation is the narrative of Jin-Sook (Phillipa Soo), a talented research scientist working for the planetarium in Chicago and another intended target of Kirby’s attacker Harper (a terrifyingly good Jamie Bell). Her story is told in fragments, but it’s through Jin-Sook’s and Kirby’s shared experience that we begin to understand what’s happening. However, it’s also what allows the show’s biggest issue to come to light: it lacks defining details. If you’ve spent enough time consuming fiction that deals in time travel and the confounding nonlinear nature of cause and effect, you’ll know there are often established parameters within a universe that explain how a piece’s unique elements operate. Shining Girls offers little in the way of explanation for its central conceit, which ultimately makes for a shaky foundation.
However, while the narrative could have been stronger and the story executed better, the performances that anchor Shining Girls are nothing short of top notch. Moss turns in yet another stellar performance as she offers up a number of interpretations of Kirby depending on where in her timeline she is and what’s happening to her. And while it can seem like she’s drawing from her previous work on The Handmaid’s Tale and Top of The Lake at times, the pain and stone-faced conviction of June and Robin fit Kirby’s story, too, as she’s another trauma survivor fighting against a world that makes little sense in the context of our own. Meanwhile, Moura is a formidable scene partner, matching Moss at every turn while grounding an impossible story, and Bell infuses Harper with a dangerous sense of entitlement that manifests as violent impulses and a blatant disregard for anyone who dares to defy him or get in his way.
As such, Shining Girls is a well-acted, intriguing series that separates itself from the traditional crime dramas and serial killer-themed series we are used to seeing across popular culture. And it has a lot to say about surviving trauma and gaining agency as Kirby fights for control and to put an end to Harper’s killing spree. But not everything in its story works, and with a high-concept drama such as this one, every misstep dims the show’s potential just a little bit more.
Shining Girls premieres Friday, April 29th with three episodes on Apple TV+. Subsequent episodes will be released weekly.
Kaitlin Thomas is an entertainment journalist and TV critic. Her work has appeared in TV Guide, Salon, and TV.com, among other places. You can find her tweets about TV, sports, and Walton Goggins @thekaitling or read more of her work at kaitlinthomas.com.
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