One thing you can say about Elisabeth Moss’ career is that she doesn’t pick easy projects. Her characters are often troubled, often in some sort of danger, and most of the time they’re both. Of course, she’s fully capable of playing those characters. as her Emmy win and multiple nominations show. So playing a woman whose world changes rapidly in the years after a brutal attack seems like something that’s right in her wheelhouse.
Opening Shot: A shot of a Rube Goldberg machine created by a kid. It’s 1964 in Chicago.
The Gist: A girl is approached by a stranger on her stoop, who appreciates the machine she created. He gets weirdly close to her lap as he picks up the bee she trapped and pulls off its wings; he then gives her a horse figurine.
Flash to 1992, still in Chicago. Kirby Mazrachi (Elisabeth Moss) is in her apartment, writing observations and petting her cat Grendel. Her mother Rachel (Amy Brenneman) has just returned from her club gig. Kirby works in the archives of the Chicago Sun-Times, where Dan Velazquez (Wagner Moura) is trying to rebuild his reporting career after a rough life period. He’s on a story about a woman’s body being found in the sewer system, who was brutally and stabbed, with a cross carved on her stomach.
Weird things keep happening to Kirby. She leaves for lunch and comes back, and her desk is somewhere else. She comes home and Grendel the cat has become a dog. Little things in her reality have been shifting since she was brutally attacked six years ago. It’s to the point where Kirby wants to move to Orlando and forget.
When the police officer who is working her case shows her mug shots related to the murder case, thinking that there are similarities, she goes to the house of who she thinks is the attacker, but his voice doesn’t match what she remembers.
She encounters Dan, who got the same lead, and he’s intrigued when she tells him about her attack. He thinks he can use her as a source, but isn’t sure if she’s reliable, especially when she freaks out at the medical examiner who is trying to examine her wounds changes from a woman to a man, at least in her mind.
In the meantime, Jin-Soo (Phillipa Soo), a scientist who works at the planetarium, gets a visit from a mysterious man (Jamie Bell) who claims to know her, but when she says she has no idea who he is, he says “not yet.”
Photo: Apple TV+
What Shows Will It Remind You Of? For sheer creepiness, Shining Girls gives us the same vibes as an extended Black Mirror episode.
Our Take: Created by Silka Luisa based on the novel by Lauren Beukes, it’s not obvious where Shining Girls is going, aside from the basic facts that Kirby was attacked years ago, the body found in the sewer seems to be the work of the same assailant, and that Dan wants to work with her to help identify the guy who was so brutal to her.
But in this case, keeping the viewers in the dark in the first episode is a good thing. When reality shifts for Kirby, in what seems like small ways, it’s strange and a little off-putting, and we tried to figure out why it’s happening. But the changes get to be more rapid and severe, like her apartment changing floors and her mother appearing and disappearing, and we’re wondering if these mental issues stem from something other than the attack.
It’s the same with the stranger that encounters Jin-Soo and calls her “Jinny”. He looks exactly the same as the man who talked the little girl 28 years earlier. If it’s the same man, how can that be? We’re getting these little crumbs of information that tells us that this thriller is going to go beyond just the idea that Kirby is trying to find her attacker.
Usually, just getting crumbs would be frustrating for us, but we’re along for the ride with Kirby as she tries to figure out just what the hell is going on. Moss is fantastic as the bewildered but determined Kirby, and her pairing with Moura works from the moment Velazquez figures out that he can use her as a source, albeit one that’s a little unusual.
There is something related in how the attacker can stay the same age and how Kirby’s reality keeps changing, likely having to do with the attacker traveling through time and the butterfly effect. And the idea that these facets of the story will get revealed over the season is an intriguing one.
Sex and Skin: None.
Parting Shot: Kirby finds that her apartment is now on the third floor instead of the second. Her mom is nowhere to be found, and Grendel is back to being a cat. But now her co-worker Marcus (Chris Chalk) lives with her and is her boyfriend. When he sees she’s shaken, he asks what happened. “I came home,” she said as they hug.
Sleeper Star: Always good to see Amy Brenneman, and here she plays a rock-and-roll mom who seems to be casual and overbearing all at once. Also, we need to give kudos to EP Michelle MacLaren, who directed the first two episodes (Moss, also an EP, directs some of the episodes, as well; Leonardo DiCaprio is also an EP). She directed the tensest episodes of Breaking Bad and she expertly ratchets up the tension in Kirby’s situation without revealing too much.
Most Pilot-y Line: “You picked the only city in Florida without a beach,” Dan tells Kirby with a laugh when she says she’s moving just for “change.”
Our Call: STREAM IT. Shining Girls takes its time to reveal the entire picture of what its story is about. But with a fine lead performance by Moss and expert direction, it’s still got enough tension to make us OK with getting only little bits of info.
Joel Keller (@joelkeller) writes about food, entertainment, parenting and tech, but he doesn’t kid himself: he’s a TV junkie. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, Slate, Salon, RollingStone.com, VanityFair.com, Fast Company and elsewhere.
social experiment by Livio Acerbo #greengroundit – original source here