There have been so many serial killer thrillers on television that writers are running out of ways to keep the genre fresh. Enter “Shining Girls,” a new Apple TV+ thriller based on the novel of the same name by Lauren Beukes, starring Elisabeth Moss, Wagner Moura, and Jamie Bell. More than a mere cat-and-mouse experience, “Shining Girls” intends to capture how violence and trauma can rupture reality. Major events in our lives can sometimes make the world around us feel unfamiliar, but what if it actually changed the world? That’s what Kirby (Moss) thinks is happening after she survives a brutal attack by a serial killer named Harper Curtis (Bell). Some of the changes are minor, like a sandwich she’s never tried before reportedly being her favorite or a hairstyle she doesn't remember changing. Others are a little bigger, like the fact that she’s married. Kirby feels like she’s been displaced from reality, bouncing through slightly different alternate universes as she hunts the man who put her in this position and who may know a thing or two about fractured realities himself.
Kirby works at the Chicago Sun-Times—the show uses the Windy City wonderfully—and she partners there with an alcoholic journalist named Dan Velazquez (Wagner Moura) to try and figure out if the man who attacked her is the same one responsible for the murder of a local girl. As they put the case together, they start to discover things that don’t make physical sense like an item from one victim being found in the body of one from many years earlier. And what about the matchbook found in Kirby from a place that doesn’t exist ... yet. It turns out that Harper doesn’t play by the rules of time and space, and his next victim, Jin-Sook (Phillipa Soo) may be unable to stop the future he’s already seen.
“Shining Girls” is a thematic treasure trove in how it unpacks the reality-shifted impact of trauma and Moss is more than up to the challenge of a tough role like this one. At first, her performance felt a little too mannered for me, but she adjusts to the intensity as Kirby becomes more confident in the fact that she’s not merely going crazy. Moss is simply one of the best actresses of her generation, the kind of performer who can sell a premise as out-there as this one. She’s ably balanced by Jamie Bell, who does some of the best work of his career in a truly menacing, terrifying performance. Harper is the kind of serial killer who doesn’t hide in the shadows—he openly stalks his victims with a confidence that borders on Christian Bale in “American Psycho.” There’s something in his choice of accent and almost charming delivery that’s chilling. Stalkers and abusers can sometimes feel like they control the world. This one actually does.
If there’s a problem with “Shining Girls,” and it’s kind of a big problem, this is yet another one of those projects that I wish was made a decade ago as a feature film. It has a lot of great ideas and two stellar performances, but there’s too little justification for it to be an episodic series and it feels like most of the narrative stretching comes in the first few episodes as the writers spin their wheels when they need to hit the ground running. It’s the kind of thing that undeniably would have been a blockbuster thriller two decades ago, and while it may get more attention as “Prestige TV,” it can’t quite fill out a season, which leads to some foot-dragging and repetition, two things that kill any thriller.
Having said that, when “Shining Girls” finally gets going, it really works. I almost got accustomed to the sags in pace because I knew there would be a peak following each valley. And I have to say that everything about the show gains momentum at the end of episode four, which features one of the best closing scenes of the year. I just worry that with the incredibly crowded state of the medium, people may not have the patience for a show that starts as slowly as this one. Give “Shining Girls” some time to grow on you. It’s worth the effort to let its light shine.
Six episodes screened for review.