Elisabeth Moss has a new show. That’s it. That’s the review.
I’m only half-joking. Genuine question: Can you name an actor with as strong a strike rate as Elisabeth Moss has? Boy does she know how to pick a project. As a kid actor, which is where I first saw her, she had the good fortune of landing a semi-recurring role on David E Kelley’s Picket Fences. And here’s the thing - a nothing role, but I absolutely remember her from that. She then goes on to a recurring role in The West Wing as fan favourite character Zoey Bartlett. And then there’s her iconic turn in Mad Men. She goes off to dabble a bit in some limited series called Top of The Lake. She leads The Handmaid’s Tale. Every one of those shows is incredible.
And now there’s Shining Girls. I went into it with the highest of expectations due to the Moss inclusion. Something pretty incredible is going to have to come along to unseat this as a Top 5 show of the year for me. It’s very good.
The premise of the show is this: Elisabeth Moss plays Kirby Mazrachi (great name), the survivor of an assault. She doesn’t know who the assailant was, but she knows his voice. The incident has had a severe impact on her life - she has become very insular, which has had a detrimental impact upon her chosen career as a journalist. She lives with her rock pig mother, played by the great Amy Brenneman and she has plans to move from Chicago to live with a cousin. As she explains, they have an available couch. But then the serial killer returns. He’s attacking and cutting up women across Chicago. Immediately, this has all the hallmarks of every serial killer film you watched in the 1990s.
But think again. This show, as grounded as it is, as deeply rooted in trauma as it may be, embraces something quite a bit… weirder.
As Kirby deals with the knowledge that her attacker is back, she keeps on having episodes… reality is shifting around her. She comes back to her desk from work, only to be told she actually works a few metres away on the other side of the office. Her pet Grendal keeps switching between being a dog and a cat, She returns home to find she is no longer living with her mum, it is instead that guy from work. And he’s her husband.
Is Kirby shifting realities? Or is this trauma impacting upon her memory?
A journalist investigating the serial killer discovers Kirby and together they work to find out what is going on, Kirby doing it very reluctantly.
But then there’s also the serial killer. Something is going on with him as well. The show hints at it in a very overt way in the opening of the show. From the very first minute of the show you will know who the villain is. This isn’t a whodunnit. It’s barely a whydunnit. It’s a what-the-devil-is-going-on-dunnit.
The show, as with practically all Apple TV+ shows, is gorgeous to look at. These shows are designed to have clips played in Apple stores, really showing off how great an iPad Pro screen looks. Michelle MacLaren, maybe the best working director in serial television, directs the opening two episodes, Moss herself directs the next two episodes, and Handmaid’s Tale director (and former Full Frontal star) Daina Reid handles the final four.
Everything about the show works, but like anything too perfect, it doesn’t necessarily feel particularly special. What elevates it completely is the performances. Elisabeth Moss is just fantastic in the lead role. With years of The Handmaid’s Tale under her bonnet, Moss is an expert at exhibiting internalised grief on-screen. It is every bit the powerhouse performance that Moss is known for. And it is that performance that absolutely drives the show. Moss surrounds herself in this with great talent. Amy Brenneman is great, but the show-stealer is Narcos actor Wagner Moura as the journalist seeking to help Kirby. He has a wonderfully low-key performance that is so wonderfully engaging to watch.
This show will be too-heavy for some viewers - the scenes of violence against women can be a bit much - they’re not exactly graphic, but they are traumatically realised on screen. For other viewers the show will nicely tick a lot of boxes.
I don’t care how hacky it sounds, but Shining Girls… it shines bright.
Shining Girls is streaming now on Apple TV+.
[This review was written for the Screen Watching podcast. Listen to it via your favourite podcast app].