Star-studded limited series are nothing new for HBO, but after the runaway success of 2017's Big Little Lies, viewers are now wondering whether this summer's Sharp Objects (Sunday, July 8 at 9/8c) will follow suit. Although the two series share a director in Emmy winner Jean-Marc Vallée, and although Sharp Objects will likely also resonate with the HBO audience, viewers are cautioned to temper their expectations: the eight-episode series is a clear departure from the glossy world and expansive coastal vistas of Big Little Lies, though it's not completely dissimilar.
Based on the novel of the same name by Gillian Flynn and adapted for TV by Marti Noxon (Dietland, UnReal), Sharp Objects is a stunning, darkly twisted story of female violence. The series follows Camille Preaker (Amy Adams, who also served as an executive producer), an alcoholic reporter recently released from psychiatric care who, at the urging of her editor, reluctantly agrees to return to her small Southern hometown to cover the brutal murder of a young girl and the disappearance — and eventual murder — of another. What soon unravels is a gothic murder mystery steeped in suffocating small town history, but Sharp Objects is also an eye-opening look at abuse and the lingering effects of trauma.
Within the first episode, viewers learn that Camille's younger sister Marian died from a mysterious ailment when Camille was just a teen. This in addition to the psychological and emotional abuse she suffered at the hands of her mother Adora (Patricia Clarkson), who plays the part of a fragile victim with ease after years of patient practice, has affected Camille to the point she self-harms by carving words into her body to cope. She's done it for so long that with the exception of her face, neck and hands, her slender body is covered in startling white scars she keeps hidden beneath dark clothing she sheds only when she's alone.
Though she has never been able to escape them, Camille's memories of her traumatic childhood come rushing back unabated once she crosses the town line and reenters the place so much went wrong. As she digs for answers and interviews townspeople, many of whom she knew as a young girl, she's haunted by visions and dreams of Marian and of the life she led both before and after her death. These flashbacks are cleverly edited into the action of the present day in such a way that it calls to mind the quick way ghosts of memories long forgotten flit to the forefront of our minds without warning, staying only long enough to remind us of their painful existence before dissolving into thin air.
Returning home to the source of her lingering trauma obviously forces Camille to confront her personal demons directly, but it also puts her on a collision course with a frustratingly passive step-father (Revenge's Henry Czerny); Richard, a Kansas City detective sent down to investigate the murders (Chris Messina); and a younger half-sister named Amma (newcomer Eliza Scanlen). And it's in Camille's interactions with the younger sister she's never known that Sharp Objects ultimately begins to resemble its own older sister, Big Little Lies.
Upon first glance, Amma appears to be everything Camille is not — namely, respectful and obedient — but beneath the pastel-colored dresses, perfectly curled hair, and wholesome smile is a wild and defiant child desperate for attention. She frequently engages in reckless behavior and is often seen drinking and doing drugs with her two best friends. She's just 13 in the novel, and although it appears the character has been aged up a couple years for the series, the decision to make her a fully-fledged teenager ultimately works in the show's favor. It also helps to drive home a recurring theme throughout the series: that a perfectly curated facade can often hide a horrifying secret or worse, a rotten core.
This often extends to the show's setting as well, and like the small wealthy coastal community of Monterey, California, in Big Little Lies, the tiny Southern town of Wind Gap, Missouri, in Sharp Objects also forms a trap for the people who live there. But while Monterey felt suffocating and insular because of its exclusivity and cost, Wind Gap is those things because it's isolated. It's so disconnected from the outside world, sometimes, that like many rural towns in America, Wind Gap actually appears to be a place out of time.
Not only is there an annual celebration that seemingly memorializes the days of the Confederacy, but young girls wearing bows in their hair and roller skates on their feet project an air of innocence while also conjuring up visions of a time long before smartphones. The stereotypical cliques from high school remain well into adulthood, but rather than trivial teenage gossip, conversations now revolve around lousy husbands and how babies make women complete. There also aren't many jobs opportunities outside of the local pig farm or the few shops in town, so men and women without the means to even dream of an escape find themselves following in the same familiar footsteps of their parents and grandparents.
In a small town like Wind Gap that doesn't appear to evolve, it's easy to see how the monotony of such an existence might become suffocating or why men and women like Amma turn to drinking and drugs for entertainment or escape. The weight of it all is felt prominently throughout the series, but Wind Gap's inability to evolve is not just rooted in its lack of opportunities or isolation: the town's inhabitants are also unable or unwilling to move on because it means having to admit something is deeply wrong with the status quo.
And there is definitely something wrong in Wind Gap. The murders that bring Camille back to town are actually just the latest in a string of deaths through the years, though they're not necessarily connected to those that came before, at least not directly. But with many men and women working hard to give off the appearance of a perfect existence while others still close their doors and turn a blind eye to the darkness that clings to the corners of Wind Gap, trauma and abuse have been allowed to continue in a cyclical pattern for years. It's unclear through seven episodes how and if that will ever change for the people of Wind Gap as a community, but perhaps by the end of the series Camille will at least have found the answers — and the strength — she needs to be able to finally put the horrors of her own life behind her.
Sharp Objects premieres Sunday, July 8 at 9/8c on HBO.