There’s no shortage of Elisabeth Moss, and that’s really all you need to know.
“Shining Girls” should not be taken lightly. Look at this: Discussion of “Shining Girls,” including reviews like this, shouldn’t be taken lightly. While the Apple TV+ limited series certainly deserves fair warning for its mature themes – perhaps that’s the dead girl mystery to end all the mysteries of dead girls – knowing too much about its premise can detract from its rewarding twists. The first four episodes are constructed with a precision that deserves to be appreciated on its own. Trust is earned steadily. Every narrative choice seems useful. So when events change from what is expected of prestige crime thrillers, you’re already on board.
Fear not, loyal readers: no spoilers will be listed here, although those of you familiar with the source material – Lauren Beukes’ 2013 novel “The Shining Girls” – already know what’s going on. (If you’re unfamiliar, avoid the Wikipedia page. There’s no first-sentence feedback.) Showrunner Silka Luisa’s adaptation is far from straightforward; our entry point is reversed, among other maneuvers, but even rearranging a book labeled as “extremely complex” isn’t enough to derail the assurance of these early episodes. But rather than continuing to speak with opaque enthusiasm (or going too far down the “spoiler” rabbit hole), perhaps the easiest way to sum up what “Shining Girls” feels halfway is to remind everyone of a well-established fact: When it comes to television, Elisabeth Moss does not miss.
While also serving as an executive producer, Moss plays Kirby Mazrachi, a newspaper archivist working at the Chicago Sun-Times in the early 90s. She listens to a walkman while she pulls old clippings (real, physical, newspaper clippings ) for a full team of reporters filling the hectic newsroom. (Oh, that was the time.) Years earlier, Kirby was on his way to becoming one of them. But a gruesome attack left her out of the game for too long, robbing her of her time, her confidence and her memory.
Now, when Kirby comes home, she pulls out a journal to record and verify basic facts about her life. She lives with her mother, Rachel (Amy Brenneman, as a rebellious local rock singer). His desk at work is the one under a leaky pipe. She has a cat named Grendel – or is it a dog named Grendel? One day, she pets a purring tabby cat, but the next day, a slobbery puppy bursts in on her doorstep. It’s not just her memory that betrays her. It is his spirit.
Kirby takes the “unreliable storyteller” label to an extreme, but Luisa’s screenplays and Emmy-winning Michelle MacLaren’s direction balance her fractured perspective in several clever ways. For one thing, Kirby grows ever more insightful as she investigates her attacker. When a recent murder mirrors what happened to him, the cops call Kirby to identify a suspect. Only Kirby does not remember him. All she remembers is what it was and her voice. It’s not long, but his Sun-Times colleague Dan Velazquez (a beautifully disheveled Wagner Moura) is determined to keep digging. Soon they are working as a team, trying to connect the dots between the cases.
The other dominant voice in the series is that of the killer, a man named Harper (Jamie Bell) whom you meet in the opening moments. “Shining Girls” is not a thriller; it is a howdunit. Kirby and Dan may be scouring files for potential suspects, but the audience knows right away who they’re looking for. What They Show Him Does goes way too far into spoiler territory, but the choice to properly show him the foundations of the series. No matter how unstable Kirby may seem, having an omniscient window into Harper’s actions helps keep the plot firmly connected.
Also helping are an abundance of inexhaustible pleasures. The 90s era is recreated through crumpled papers, greasy dinners and rickety cars. Chicago’s red iron bridges, lakeside beaches and long-standing institutions (thanks to the Adler Planetarium) are key locations, not just pretty shots. In the long television history of alcoholic and hard-nosed reporters, no one has seemed more haggard or determined than Moura’s fearless reporter. Brenneman is having the time of his life insulting his bandmates and lamenting over his records. Bell doesn’t separate Harper’s seductive charisma from her overbearing menace, which makes the killer unpredictable – and therefore even scarier.
It all hangs together, that’s Moss. I don’t understand how an actor so drawn to angsty characters can remain so consistently exciting to watch. Not since Peggy Olson was spilling beers at Sterling Cooper & Partners had Moss played a role that offered even a quarter more laid-back frivolity than sobering intensity. And his Kirby is intense. Anyone constantly questioning the world around them should be, just to find their way home at the end of the day. Moss acknowledges this tremor, as well as the shields Kirby has put up to create some sense of stability, but she also harbors frustration over who is to blame for this difficult life. To follow his growing courage in the midst of relentless confusion is thrilling, but to see Moss find a guideline for a character that is almost completely adrift is even better.
Like any mystery, it’s hard to fully assess “Shining Girls” after watching only half the season. The series is not really on still nothing. As a fully engaging thriller, it doesn’t have to say anything substantial to be worth watching. (Though it encourages people to face their trauma rather than bury it, which is great, and there are still about a dozen different avenues to follow when it comes to the grip of memories on the present.) Things could go off the rails in the final chapters, tainting the careful build, gripping performances, and heart-pounding teases. But the creative trio of Moss, MacLaren and Luisa won me over. These first four episodes aren’t just set up. They’re exhilarating, and in just a few months, I can’t wait to talk about all eight from start to finish. Until then, maybe keep your own detective to a minimum.
“Shining Girls” premiered at the 2022 SXSW Film Festival. Apple TV+ will release the limited series on Friday, April 29.