“She wanted to shield her, from the bullet of an ordinary life.”
—Rachel Cusk, Arlington Park
I believe, perhaps counterintuitively and certainly masochistically, that a good film or TV show should make you feel profoundly banal. It should not transport you or give you hope that dreams come true. It is the role of avant-garde television to make you understand that you are a cliché, that there is truly nothing remarkable about you, that no one will tell your story, that everyone has been wounded and only some wounds are worth watching.
Such is the case with Sharp Objects, Jean-Marc Vallée’s miniseries that premiered on July 8 on HBO. Coming off the extraordinary success of Big Little Lies, Vallée brings us another murder story mixed with a biting comedy of manners, this time with a healthy dose of Lana Del Rey Americana. Camille Preaker (Amy Adams) has escaped her stifling, socialite mother Adora (Patricia Clarkson) and the small town of Wind Gap, Missouri, to become a reporter in St. Louis, only to be sent back to cover the murder of two young girls.
The story is one that has been told countless times — a woman with a dark past returns home to confront traumas internal and external. To say that Sharp Objects is innovative would be an exaggeration, but this is exactly my point. So unapologetically does the series embrace the hackneyed traditions of crime shows (especially those starring women) and melodramas that it becomes something discomfiting that dares us to love it despite our entrenched desire for that wink-wink that tells us it is all a joke.
The irony never comes. In this way, the sincerity of Sharp Objects denies any such markers of highbrow enjoyment and instead provokes a hysterical need to chase the impossible — to become that booze-swigging, chain-smoking, windows-down-tunes-blasting woman with a traumatic secret you have seen so many times onscreen. Sharp Objects reminds us that some people have their lives immortalized onscreen, but those people are only characters. We can never approach that freeing artifice.