Last year’s SXSW Film Festival saw a host of excellent television show premieres, including Them, Made for Love, and the Freeform breakout, Cruel Summer. This year may be decidedly less stacked on the television front; however, a couple of options broke out of the gate early to show promise. Based on the novel by Lauren Beukes, Apple TV+ offering Shining Girls seemed among the more intriguing titles. With Mad Men and Invisible Man starlet (and two-time Emmy winner for The Handmaid’s Tale!) Elisabeth Moss in the lead role, my expectations were perhaps a bit too sky-high for this show to fulfill. It remains a perfectly serviceable mystery thriller, yet I kept waiting for the pop of excitement I was sure would arrive.
We open in 1964, where Harper (Jamie Bell) sits next to a little girl on a stairwell and starts strangely flirting with her. He gifts her a small wooden horse, almost in an ominous way, the suggestion seeming to be that he will see her again very soon. Flashing forward a number of years, Kirby (Elisabeth Moss) is still haunted by a past trauma, and also goes to therapy to resolve it. Kirby has visions of Harper, his aura hanging over her like a black cloud. She appears to live with her mom and a cute little cat named Grendel—that is, until later in the day, when she comes home to her boyfriend, and her mother is nowhere to be seen.
Kirby has a condition in which her present is constantly changing, morphing into whatever the reality actually exists as. If this sounds confusing and oftentimes confounding, it most certainly is. The audience is forced to follow along with Kirby’s breadcrumbs as she pieces together her new existence. To make matters worse, modern-day slayings resume, fitting the same parameters as Kirby’s assault. A fatal stabbing sends out the pilot episode in gory fashion, revealing Harper’s dangerous edges lurking just beneath the surface. Kirby decides to team up with rookie reporter Dan (Wagner Moura) as his inside source, as a woman who has experienced the terror of this unseen foe firsthand. Kirby’s validity as a source is constantly thrown into question by way of her borderline-insanity. It seems she was committed following a breakdown after her assault, and her memory was affected by the incident. It may only be through working together that Dan and Kirby can take down this serial murderer once and for all…
A stylish and mysterious opening credits sequence is perhaps my favorite aspect of the show, similarly to how I felt about Hulu’s Only Murders in the Building. That show was at least quite entertaining and frequently hilarious. In the golden age of television, I have become decidedly less willing to give concessions to a show that I am not fully on board with. If it hasn’t gripped me three episodes deep, it is customary for me to drop it like a brick. Thankfully, three episodes is exactly the amount that Apple TV+ allowed their critics to access, so the work is done for me. The sci-fi edge is merely a glimmer in this first batch, and I have no doubt Shining Girls will explore this aspect going forward. I believe the premise is really only just beginning to take off, but I couldn’t bring myself to care enough to continue the show beyond this initial viewing.
Shining Girls screened at the SXSW Film Festival, and premieres to Apple TV+ subscribers on Friday, April 29th.