There’s no denying it – Shining Girls has a killer concept.
The problem is, to even talk about it could be considered something of a spoiler. So I’m going to say up top, if you want to go into Shining Girls completely cold, if you know nothing about the book it’s based on or the turn the story takes, look away now.
Shining Girls review: Killer concept gets muddled in needless mystery
This review won’t spoil specific character or plot beats, but it will outline a central feature of the series and the novel it’s based on.
So… Harper Curtis, an obsessive and self-serving man from the early 1900s happens upon a house through the entering and exiting of which he can travel to different times in the future. Using this mechanism he becomes a time-travelling serial killer, taking the lives of promising, strong, “shining” women.
When Kirby – one of his intended victims and an archivist in 1990s Chicago – survives, her world begins to shift and change as Harper continues to move through time. Kirby then realises that another recent murder is linked to her attack, and teams up with her friend, a reporter named Dan, to uncover the truth.
As an elevator pitch, I’d say that’s hard to beat – it’s a truly thrilling set-up, the kind that makes you immediately want to dive in. But that’s not the pitch we’ve been given. The offical syynopsis for the series states: “Years after a brutal attack left her in a constantly shifting reality, Kirby Mazrachi learns that a recent murder is linked to her assault. She teams with veteran reporter Dan Velazquez to understand her ever-changing present and confront her past.”
Confusing, right? Pretty vague? Unfortunately, it’s a problem which extends beyond the marketing.
While the blurb of the novel on which the series is based tells us Harper’s backstory and the time-travel plot up front, the series refuses to reveal its hand. We see Jamie Bell’s character in the past in the show’s first scene, so we know he’s a man out of time, but the it takes the majority of the season before we see things from his perspective and understand how and why he’s been committing his heinous crimes.
This means that the series instead becomes a mystery thriller, a “how-dunnit” as Bell, who plays Harper, put it in an interview with RadioTimes.com. We know it’s Harper – we’re just (maybe) not meant to know how he’s doing it.
But Shining Girls is an Apple TV+ series. It’s not like stumbling onto a new series on ITV when flicking through the channels – to watch it you’re likely have sought it out, and if you’re seeking it out you’re likely to at least have looked at the details of the plot. It’s based on an acclaimed book, yet the adaptation acts like the entire concept of that book is a big secret.
It’s a bizarre decision, because as an audience member who knows even the vaguest details about it, you’re just spending episode after episode waiting for the shoe to drop, for the characters to realise and for the show itself to admit its most interesting plot device to its audience.
The cast are all game, and the decision to focus on Elisabeth’s Moss’ Kirby over Bell’s Harper is admirable from a social standpoint, highlighting victims over aggressors, but there’s no denying that the latter is a more engaging screen presence.
Moss gives a strong performance, but it’s one we’ve seen before, most recently in The Invisible Man – traumatised and going through something no one else could possibly believe or understand, making her experience all the more alienating. It’s an apt allegory for the experience of trauma itself, but playing out over eight episodes its impact is lesser than it was in the aforementioned horror film.
Bell on the other hand is truly revelatory, bringing a slightly charming yet highly unnerving presence to every scene, ensuring you just can’t look away. Harper is a villain for the ages, someone we can get under the skin of and grow to understand, yet detest all the same.
Once the series does show its hand allow the audience in on its ‘secret’, it does so in its strongest episode, and the rest of the series benefits dramatically from the reveal. Its picks up the pace and gains a sense of clarity, honing in on its thriller and sci-fi elements which work so much better than its mystery. It’s just all a bit late.
That’s not to say the early episodes aren’t without merit or promise. In fact it’s never too far off from greatness. The direction from Michelle MacLaren, Daina Reid and Moss herself is strong, the series looks gorgeous and Wagner Moura and Phillipa Soo give phenomenal, moving performances in their supporting roles.
Meanwhile the shifting world is handled in a subtle, surprisingly non-invasive yet effective way, and the era of ’90s journalism is lovingly recreated. This world feels lived in and tactile in a way so many series don’t.
All of these positives are exactly why it is so maddening that the show made such a crucial misstep in its structure. In the age of streaming, where spoilers abound and audiences search for any insights into the series they watch, especially mystery thrillers, you have to assume they will have done such basic research as to have googled the book.
Non-linear storytelling has always been more easily accomplished in novels than in films or series, and Shining Girls unfortunately struggles to get it right. It does mostly stick the landing, but it’s a bumpy, occasionally frustrating road before this series is truly able to shine.