Shining Girls: Season 1 Review


Shining Girls: Season 1 is now streaming on Apple TV+. The below review contains some light plot details, but no major spoilers.

At times an indecipherable thriller, but always a compelling and highly bingeable one, Shining Girls puts a new spin on both the serial killer thriller, and the time-travel genre. Rather than focusing on the one doing the time-traveling or the killing, it gives the spotlight to one of the would-be casualties and all the ways in which her world is turned upside down.

It’s set in 1990s Chicago, portrayed as an era of optimism and excitement for the future, where technology is quickly catching up to the public’s imagination and journalism is still a thriving industry. Yet things are not exactly optimistic or exciting for Kirby (Elisabeth Moss), who is years removed from an assault that almost killed her, and continues to scar her every waking moment. A once promising journalist, she now works in the archives of the Chicago Sun-Times, hoping to one day get her byline in the paper. When a woman is found dead with a similar scar as Kirby’s, and with a similar object being left inside her by the killer, she goes down a spiral trying to piece together what happened to her, the many other women before her, and what could happen to the next one in line.

Showrunner Silka Luisa’s TV show is a strange adaptation of Lauren Beukes’ novel of the same name. If you have never even heard of the novel before, then it might be quite hard to know exactly what is going on in the first few episodes. Shining Girls does keep things extremely close to the vest compared to the openness of the book, meaning its themes, genre, and even framing are hidden from us at first.

This makes for a bit of an uneven pace for the entire first season. Even though the mystery is compelling, and it introduces a new layer of mystery and a new twist to keep things interesting just about every ten minutes, it still stagnates a fair amount, and the overarching plot moves relatively slowly. Every answer arrives ten questions too late, taking away from their full impact. And yet, influences from Se7en and Zodiac, and great directing from Moss and Breaking Bad alum Michelle MacLaren help maintain a sense of dread throughout the series. Likewise, Shining Girls’ bewilderment puts us in Kirby’s shoes, which adds to the tension as her world quite literally crumbles around her. Within the same scene, she goes from blonde to brunette, and even single to married, her job and address change, as do her favorite food and her pet.

As a show about time-travel, Shining Girls is far from a neat story with clear rules like Groundhog Day. We know at least one person who can manipulate the rules for their nefarious purposes, and we do learn a bit about what can be done, but we never fully get how it all works. What we do see and understand is the effect it has on Kirby’s wellbeing, and how she has learned to navigate an unstable life by raising as little attention as possible, keeping a low profile while having to keep basic notes of her life like she was a character in Christopher Nolan’s Memento. It’s the show’s best and most poignant allegory for trauma and the way it can wreak havoc on your reality. Though it’s not strictly a horror story, Kirby is a bonafide final girl, and like any slasher, her eventual fighting back is riveting and bloody. That being said, even if revenge is cathartic, it is Kirby’s resilience in refusing to just give up that makes her commendable, and Moss inhabits the role to a T despite having played similar ones before, with a blend of vulnerability and fiery intensity that feels familiar but also fresh every time she’s on screen. That we get glimpses into the different lives, experiences, roles, and accomplishments Kirby was robbed of by her attacker only makes her story more tragic and the finale more satisfying.

On the other side of the proverbial knife is Jamie Bell as Harper, the killer. Bell gives a calculating and truly terrifying performance, one that avoids the typical pitfalls of the charismatic villain by doubling down on the creepy and menacing factors as we start learning more about his past. This is no sympathetic figure, but someone who uses pleasantries to hide a weak and emasculated little man with a desperate need for control.

This is one thriller that greatly benefits from the binge-watching model.

Shining Girls may bite off a little more than it can chew for its first season, and its lore drops come as too little, way too late, distracting from Kirby’s main story. That being said, there is no denying how nail-bitingly enticing it is to keep watching the show once you start, how great its lead performances are, and how hugely cathartic the final episode is, putting a nice little bow on the whole season.

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