Fourteen minutes into Shining Girls (streams AppleTV+ from Friday), it is unleashed – the withering look, the scathing voice and the full velocity of Elisabeth Moss at work. She is a defining actor of the period we live through. From Mad Men to Top of the Lake to The Handmaid’s Tale, she’s played iconic characters, representative women, in series that are part of the narrative about the contemporary atmosphere, whether the material is about the past, the present or a threatening future.
Shining Girls is also another step in making Moss the definitive actor for roles in which women use suffering as a strength. She’s the star, an executive producer and directs some episodes of the eight-part series. (Three available now, more arriving weekly.) It is a formidably demanding role and the series demands a lot of the viewer. It demands close attention, as it shifts this way and that, attempting to let you inside the disturbed, frightened mind of its central character.
That’s Kirby (Moss), who when we meet her in the 1990s is working in the library of a Chicago newspaper. It’s dull work, far from the newsbeat, and Kirby appears to be a loner. She writes mundane things in her diary, as if trying to keep track of banality. Then, the body of a murdered young woman is found in a closed-off underground pipe, and while a sad-sack reporter (substance abuse, clinging to his job), one Dan Velazquez (Wagner Moura), is pursuing the story, Kirby is doing the same. You see, she thinks she was an intended victim of the same killer, but she’s the one who got away.
This might seem like a straightforward opening into a serial killer mystery, but Shining Girls is immensely more complicated. We know the killer, a man named Harper (Jamie Bell), is a seedy figure who turns smarmy with women he encounters. But he seems to be from the past, suddenly appearing in other time periods. And his impact on Kirby amounts to more than the scars on her body. She keeps writing down banal facts because the facts of her life keep changing. Her desk at work suddenly belongs to someone else; her mother’s apartment is occupied by another person; she returns home to find she’s got a husband.
The series is adapted loosely from the novel of the same title by Lauren Beukes. The book’s hook, which is not necessarily replicated here – multiple changes were made in the adaptation – was that Harper is a Depression-era drifter, drifting forward through time and, to keep going, must murder “shining girls.” Here, the book’s subtext is closer to the surface. Harper isn’t a charismatic genius. He’s a guy who kills ambitious, standout women before they truly blossom. He’s the guy – any guy – who instinctively halts the progress of women.
There’s a terrific thriller trying to break out of the sometimes-confusing plot machinations here. Close scrutiny is required and rewarded with a dose of the chills. Moss is astounding, handling the twisted mind of Kirby with the sort of aplomb that makes her every performance unmissable. The series has an all-women directing crew, and the meaning of that is obvious in the ways Kirby’s deeply unsettled mind is displayed to us.
Also airing/streaming this weekend – Ridley Road (Sunday, PBS, 9 p.m. on Masterpiece) is an odd, intoxicating new four-part drama set in England in the 1960s. The opening is quite something. In a sunny room, in 1962, a chic blonde woman plays with an adorable child, and then a man you assume is the husband/father arrives. Together the trio give the Nazi salute. We are then thrown back a bit in time to meet that chic woman as brunette Vivien Epstein (a captivating performance and first TV role for newcomer Agnes O’Casey, a theatre actor and great-granddaughter of playwright Sean O’Casey), as she suffers through an excruciating Jewish family meal. Next, Vivien meets a strapping fella, Jack (Tom Varey) and sexual tension is high.
What going on here? Well, the story, inspired by real events, is about the sudden rise of neo-fascism in 1960s Britain. Anti-immigrant white nationalism seethed and neo-Nazis took advantage. What Vivien doesn’t know is that Jack is working undercover inside the neo-Nazi movement. How she ends up in that opening scene is the meat of a tense, thriller-like drama.
Finally, two things to note – Stanley Tucci: Searching for Italy Season 2 (Sunday CNN, 9 p.m.) arrives at last, and note that Ozark Season 4, Part 2 (streams Netflix from Friday) arrives to conclude the series.
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