Published On: Sat, Jul 7th, 2018

Sharp Objects cuts into heart of middle America

“Dead girls everywhere,” a character says, over a drink. That sums up the new HBO limited series Sharp Objects (premiering Sunday, July 8): in tiny Wind Gap, Missouri, almost everything is said over a drink — this town has a substance abuse problem — and there are a lot of endangered girls.

There’s Anne, who was found dead in a creek a month before the action starts. There’s Natalie, who’s gone missing. There’s Amma, who by day obeys her demanding mama, Adora (Patricia Clarkson), but at night climbs out her window looking for thrills.

A two-hour movie just can’t compete with an eight-hour series like Sharp Objects for creating a layered, complicated world.
A two-hour movie just can’t compete with an eight-hour series like Sharp Objects for creating a layered, complicated world.  (ANNE MARIE FOX/HBO)

And then there’s Camille (Amy Adams), Adora’s older daughter. She actually escaped Wind Gap and became a reporter in St. Louis; now she’s back to cover Anne’s and Natalie’s stories; to unearth secrets about a dead girl in her own past; and to reveal — gradually, in jagged fragments — why she drifts around half-dead herself.

Sharp Objects is a snapshot of what’s happening to storytelling onscreen. Based on a 2006 novel by Gillian Flynn (optioned right after her smashing success with Gone Girl), it was developed for several years as a feature film. Then TV writer extraordinaire Marti Noxon, who specializes in damaged women protagonists (she created UnREAL, To the Bone, Dietland and Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce), convinced the producers that long-form television was its more natural home.

It’s a chicken-and-egg thing: the more that movie theatres fill up with Star Wars and Marvel spectacles, the more writers, producers, actors and directors who want to focus instead on character-driven drama — such as Canada’s Jean-Marc Vallée, who directed all eight episodes of Sharp Objects — will turn to television. And the huge buzz and success around novels-turned-series such as The Handmaid’s Tale and Big Little Lies (also directed by Vallée) guarantees that quality drama will be kept out of multiplexes for the foreseeable future.

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A two-hour movie just can’t compete with an eight-hour series for creating a layered, complicated world. Wind Gap is a gloriously bleak portrait of the middle America that fell for the promise of being made “great” again, but its toxicity keeps seeping through. There’s a massive class divide: rich white folks own the town slaughterhouse; poor Mexicans work in it. Bored teenagers amuse themselves with OxyContin and being cruel to one another on the internet. The sheriff happily dons a confederate uniform for an annual barbecue.

Movies also can’t compete when it comes to building up dread over eight hours, or to developing characters. Adams has been moving steadily away from the sweet roles that defined her early career, and a lot more people will watch her tortured, defiant, complex work here than bought a ticket for her film Nocturnal Animals. Clarkson also takes full advantage of the luxury of time to build Adora — slowly, delicately — into a truly terrifying monster-mother.

According to Deadline Hollywood, more is on the way: production companies including eOne — the company behind Sharp Objects — are combing their vaults for film scripts that can be converted to TV miniseries. Prior to this project, Vallée and Adams had been trying to make a feature film about Janis Joplin — I wonder if that will move to the small screen, too?

Johanna Schneller writes weekly about television’s impact on culture. Outside the Box usually appears Saturdays.

Twitter: @JoSchneller

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Sharp Objects cuts into heart of middle America