Television is finally starting to tell stories about complex women. From Big Little Lies to Killing Eve, we’re getting TV series that center angry, flawed, sometimes violent women. Sharp Objects, which shares a network and director with the former of those examples, is poised to become the next great TV story in this mainstream cultural evolution.
Female anger and its manifestations has always been an integral part of the Sharp Objects narrative. Author Gillian Flynn, speaking at tonight’s Sharp Objects world premiere at the ATX TV Festival, said she wrote the novel in part because she wanted to see a story about women’s rage and violence in a mainstream culture that tends to be much more interested in exploring male anger and how it manifests.
“There were a lot of stories about men and violence and men and rage and how they handle that,” said Flynn, “and not much about how women did that and how women handled their anger and their violence and what that looked like, especially generationally.”
Sharp Objectfollows protagonist Camille Preaker (Amy Adams), a St. Louis newspaper journalist sent to back to her hometown of Wind Gap, Missouri in order to investigate the murders of two local girls. Camille, like many of the female protagonists in Big Little Lies, is mostly suffering in silence—in this case, turning her anger and pain inwards in the form of alcoholism and cutting.
The newspaper assignment may bring Camille home, but it also drudges up personal demons, in particular childhood memories surrounding the death of her sister. The aforementioned cross-generational exploration of female trauma happens chiefly, at least in the first episode, in the relationship between Camille and her mother, Adora Crellin (Patricia Clarkson). Adora, who comes from “old money,” continues to suffer from the pain of losing a child, but is outwardly entirely committed to preserving her socialite image. Camille, with her alcoholism and “morbid questions” is a threat to the performative guards Adora has built up.
Showrunner Marti Noxon (UnREAL), who also penned the first episode, felt a personal connection to the subject matter of a woman using self-harmful coping mechanisms to deal with her pain.
“I have struggled with eating disorders and alcoholism off and on throughout my life and there was something about the way Camille hid her pain and then was so intrepid and she didn’t let that stop her that I found so moving,” said Noxon. “There’s this female quality where we… certain generations, I think, were taught to keep that stuff hidden and keep it inside.”
Noxon said she struggled translating the deeply-internal story of Camille in the book to the screen, crediting director Jean-Marc Vallée (Big Little Lies) with communicating much of Camille’s inner turmoil in a visual manner. Vallée, who directed all eight episodes of the show, subtly articulates the haunted, often intoxicated logic of Camille’s perspective through jump cuts, dream sequences, and by playing with time.
“Jean-Marc took what was in there and made it 10,000 times better,” said Noxon, “but that fluid [intertwining of the] past, present, and maybe even future was my experience of being a drunk. It all blends together and all the ghosts are there all the time.”
The slow, brutal unpeeling of the layers of Camille’s pain, trauma, and anger is not a story that could have easily been told with such nuance in a film format.
“Television is in such a renaissance right now,” said Adams who, in addition to starring as Camille, also executive produces the series. “It’s a wonderful place to tell stories … and a great place to tell this story especially. Camille needed to be explored over eight hours. To try to do that in 90 minutes to 120 tops would have been very tricky.”
Noxon, who has spent the last few decades writing and producing both TV and film, agrees.
“Movies with complicated female leads don’t get the support and they don’t get the attention they deserve,” said Noxon. “And they [often] don’t get great marketing campaigns. If one doesn’t perform well, then they just say, ‘Well, it doesn’t work.’ There’s independent films, but often those don’t get seen very much.”
Noxon said she’s spent the last five or six years creating TV projects about “difficult women,” calling Sharp Objects the third installment in her “self-harm trilogy,” following The Bone and Dietland.
If the first episode is any indication, Sharp Objects is a hell of a capper. With characteristically complex performances from Adams and Clarkson; intimate, haunting direction and writing from Vallée and Noxon, respectively; and a central mystery as fascinating as it is disturbing, Sharp Objects is poised to be one of this summer’s must-watch dramas… on TV or the big screen.
Sharp Objects premieres on July 8th on HBO.