Apple+ TV’s brain-frying serial killer drama with a difference.
“At first we find its shine… and then we take it away.”
Before we get started, can we just acknowledge that Apple+ TV is absolutely killing it at the moment? (No pun intended.) Every series this streaming service releases seems to be more ambitious, experimental, less showy than some of its illustrious counterparts, and I have to say… I’m here for it.
Severance, The Last Days Of Ptolemy Grey, The Essex Serpent… all, from what I’ve seen, are extremely strong, thought-provoking and hugely compelling dramas.
And now you can add Shining Girls into that mix.
Adapted from the 2013 novel by Lauren Beukes, this eight-episode series features many of the tropes you love in a crime drama – procedural thrills and spills, a central, odd-couple investigative pairing, and, perhaps most headline-worthy, a very creepy serial killer. But what makes Shining Girls stand out are the metaphysical, almost supernatural/sci-fi elements that give the story a really strange, disorienting edge, and eventually – and against all the odds – a real emotional depth.
Kirby Mazrachi (Elisabeth Moss) is an archivist at the Chicago Tribune. When she was a child, she was playing on the steps outside her home. She was approached by a mysterious man – a smiling, seemingly friendly and charming man – who soon creeped her out after he became a little too over familiar. He left her a gift, a seemingly random object (a small wooden sculpture of a Pegasus).
Fast forward to the early-1990s and Kirby has endured a terrifying ordeal – she was attacked and was cut open… by the same man who she met as a child on the steps outside her house. This man hadn’t aged a day. So horrifying was the attack he placed an object inside of her.
Now, four years after the attack, she’s trying to piece her life back together but this monumental task isn’t helped by certain events that make her question her very identity and place in the world. Every day there’s a subtle shift in her reality: at work, she finds her desk has been taken over by someone else, even though, mere moments before, it was hers; she has a cat called Grendel, but one day she returns from work and Grendel the cat is now Grendel the dog; her apartment switches floors in the block; her mother attains a different life and personality, completely contrary to what Kirby has always known; and one day she returns home from work to find she has a husband she didn’t know she had. This ever-growing list of discombubulations naturally throw her for a loop, as well as us as an audience.
These shifts – or changes as the characters call them – are creepy because they slowly ramp up in significance.
As Kirby tries to understand what’s going on and why a new homicide case matches the MO of her own attack. Convinced that the perpetrator of this new attack is the same as the person who attempted to disembowel her, she teams up with ramshackle reporter Dan Velazquez (Wagner Moura) to piece together what’s happening.
Together they form an unlikely pairing – Kirby is obsessed, terrified and confused, while single-dad Dan has a reputation at the newspaper as a fuck-up and as a heavy drinker. Together they surely can’t be trusted, especially when they work a case that seemingly has no suspects or makes no sense.
Why does it make no sense? Because the man Kirby met as a child and the man who thought had killed her – a man named Harper Curtis (Jamie Bell) – has been time-hopping and leaving a trail of murderous devastation as he dips in and out of different time periods. He literally stalks his victims throughout their lives.
Like any element of time travel, or at least those who use it, there’s a chance that Harper will affect events and people and realities. And this is what he unknowingly does – every time he commits an act of violence, Kirby’s reality changes; the two (unbeknown to both of them at first) are bonded somehow because of their meetings in the past.
Now, depending on how you view time-travelling dramas, you may roll your eyes and think that because of this, Shining Girls isn’t for you. Or, if you’re intrigued by the prospect of a time-travelling serial killer, you might think it’s worth a shot.
If you’re in the latter camp, one word of warning – Shining Girls starts off slowly, and all the shifts in reality will have you constantly scratching your head and wondering what the hell is going on.
But stick with this series and you will be rewarded. The disorientation it creates with the aforementioned shifts in reality mirrors Kirby’s own mindset as he desperately tries to piece together her shattered, post-assault life. If anything, Shining Girls is a very skilled metaphor for post-traumatic stress after the survival from extreme trauma – the confusion, the fact that no one believes Kirby’s version of events, and how memories alter and falter. How lives can become shattered.
But Shining Girls is so much more than that, and I have so much to say about it that I don’t have room for here – it’s the type of show you need to sit with friends (preferably with a drink or two) and really discuss it and try to figure it all out. It makes you think, challenges you and makes you really pay attention – which, in an age of cookie-cutter crime dramas, is an entirely good thing. As I mentioned earlier, what keeps this utterly engrossing is the momentum provided by the procedural investigation, as all good procedural investigations should do. As Kirby and Dan delve deeper into the case, they find that Harvey has claimed dozens of victims spanning throughout the 20th century.
Each one, they find, has had an object inserted into them (a pretty grim feature) that was owned by a previous victim. The twist here is that there may be decades between each one, so his tracks are essentially covered because no one case was ever solved or linked.
The way he stalks his victims – over decades and throughout time – is also as intriguing as it is creepy. He often calls his prey on the telephone, engaging them in cryptic conversations, toying with time and space.
Typical quotes during one such conversation include:
Victim: “I don’t know you.”
Harvey: “You did. You will.”
Harvey: “You think you can remember the future?”
These time-shifting conversations and scenarios are never more evident when it comes to the journey of astronomer Phillipa Joo (Jin-Sook), who is murdered by Harvey early in the series but reappears later thanks to shifts in reality. During a talk to one of her students, she deftly explains something about metaphysics: that when someone does something in one reality it affects them in another. That is to say that there are alternate universes and people living parallel lives.
Multiverses (or alternate universes as us oldies call them) are all the rage in TV and film at the moment, but Shining Girls cleverly weaves these concepts into a procedural story to produce a really engrossing, intense and thought-provoking yarn.
I’ve read other reviews that contend that because Kirby and Dan’s investigation is linear(ish) and Harvey’s nefarious ways are jumping here there and everywhere – revealing to the audience what he’s up while Kirby and Dan struggle to understand what’s going on – this structure somehow renders Kirby and Dan a little impotent. But I’d counter-argue that this device is used all the time in the crime drama genre and is a good way of generating suspense – the audience knows what’s happening before our main protagonists do.
So I did really enjoy Shining Girls. It’s different from the book, for sure (actually very different in many ways), but successfully builds and builds until you can’t take your eyes off it. And the finale? Wow, it takes what precedes it and somehow gives us the ending that we – and Kirby AND Harvey AND Harvey’s victims – deserve all in a very Shining Girls sort of way. That is to say, you know it’s satisfying and you’re satisfied but you’re not entirely sure what is happening.
(The way Harvey manages to jump back and forth in times is thanks to a house he happens upon just after World War I, a kind of portal, and as time goes by there’s a definite Lord Of The Rings/Gollum dynamic when it comes to whoever has control of this house – it corrupts, and it exposes humans’ basic need for power.)
A large part of the show’s success is down to the uniformly superb cast, especially (quelle surprise) Moss who is her usual brilliant self (she directs two of the episodes, too) and constantly teeters on the edge of a breakdown only to use her rage and desperate need to know who assaulted her (and why) to pull herself back up from the precipice and challenge not only those around her who doubt her version of reality but to get even with the man who so heinously violated her.
It’s not completely perfect (I thought episode six, where an entire episode was given over to explain Harvey’s backstory and how he can travel through time was so much of a shock tonally it broke a bit of momentum to Kirby and Dan’s procedural journey… crucial to a show where your comprehension is hanging by a thread), but all in all Shining Girls is another very strong show in the ever-expanding Apple+ TV canon.
And crucially, you will think about this show and talk about this show long after you watched it. Always a sign of a great series.
Shining Girls streams on Apple+ TV