For a large chunk of its opening episode, you may not be quite sure of what is going on during Shining Girls. Beginning on a genuinely creepy note, the series draws you into its mystery and utilisation of particular genre tropes thanks to some superlative deployment of ‘mystery box’ storytelling, but it’s also doing so in a way that it never talks down to the audience. There is no taking everyone by the hand and explaining everything just to make sure you’re comfortable and have a clear grasp of what is going on.
It’s not a series that wants to make things easy for you to grasp, but then that becomes a key reason why Silka Luisa’s adaptation of Lauren Beukes’ best selling novel works as devastatingly well as it does, not to mention how brilliantly feminine the whole endeavour feels.
We’ve been here before, at least on the surface. Women are being killed by a serial offender, there’s an investigation, this time by members of the Chicago Sun-Times, and we get scenes depicting the antagonist stalking his victims and killing them in moments that are quite distressing, with copious crime scene photographs and a lead female character dealing with her own trauma.
What makes this feel different isn’t just the sci-fi genre edge given to so much of it, but just how much of is filtered through a female gaze rather than a male, with a female showrunner adapting a book by a female author, with female directors behind the camera. That Michelle McClaren is director on the opening two episodes and an executive producer gives the entire series a fantastic suspenseful charge which isn’t a surprise given her past work on The X-Files and Breaking Bad
It’s the comparison with The X-Files that is the most potent here. There are conceptual similarities in a way that is similar to season nine classic 4-D, while the director of photography on some of the episodes is Robert McLachlan who made his mark lighting and photographing X-Files companion series Millennium. Like that series, there is an exploration of the evil that men do here that is captured in an elegantly stylish and nasty way (this is a very good looking series for sure), but it never for once feels exploitative if it had a male writer or director calling the shots.
The remaining episodes are directed by Moss herself and prolific Australian director Daina Reid, whose previous credits include working on The Handmaid’s Tale.
Brimming with horror elements, it takes a lot for a modern-day television series to worm their way into your psyche, and while sequences depicting Jamie Bell’s antagonist, displaying a characteristic cheeky charm that turns ever darker thanks to not only his violent nature but also his abilities (which I will not give away here), it’s the exploration of being a survivor and emphasis on psychological horror where Shining Girls gains its emotional power.
Just from the trailers, one could tell this was going to be a brilliant showcase for Elisabeth Moss. There is no other actress today that can convey inner torment and the psychology that goes with it. Even away from her masterful performance in The Handmaid’s Tale, she has now picked two high-end genre pieces (this and The Invisible Man) that get knee-deep into victimology and stone-cold explorations of the violence that men do played out against genre ideas and tropes of a fantasy nature.
Unlike The Invisible Man film from 2020, Shining Girls benefits from never losing sight of the big picture. Where Leigh Whanell’s film couldn’t help but just be a little bit impressed at the powers of its abusive main antagonist, the direction and portrayal of Bell’s character never for one moment is impressed with his omnipresent powers and abilities. If anything, it just adds to the danger and level of threat he so cheekily displays, with the potential for violence feeling like a switch ready to go off without warning.
For the first chunk of episodes, we’re never quite sure what it is he is doing, the writing working wonders with the mystery box format by literally showing and not telling. It’s a storytelling move that might prove frustrating for some quarters of the audience. The series settles into itself in such a manner that you might be left thinking for a few minutes that you’ve missed a previous episode, while genre savvier audience members may have more of a lock on what is going on, but the fun is in watching the characters figure it out in a manner that never speaks down to those who are watching.
The central conceit of the story is on display right away, but it’s depicted without any character expositing it immediately just so everyone can keep up. Instead, everything is filtered through Moss’ character Kirby, as we share her bewilderment and confusion, all the while the most old fashioned narrative concession is to filter this into a mystery that its lead characters must solve through interviews, investigation work and trips to the expansive cold case evidence room.
There’s little room for humour and a lack of levity might prove too much for some given the darkness of the subject matter, but then this isn’t something that wants to revel in the wonders of the genre and the powers of its antagonist. Instead, it turns it into a piercing horror study of the evil that men can do when someone as purely vindictive as the one here is given it. Similar to The Handmaid’s Tale, the weight of the world rests on the shoulders of an Elisabeth Moss character, but she once again shows just how fantastic an actress she is that she can pull something like this off with great aplomb, grounding the epic and filtering it through a character who is tangible, realistic and devastatingly sympathetic.
Shining Girls starts Friday 29th April 2022 on Apple TV+