What Critics Missed About HBO’s ‘Sharp Objects’

HBO’s latest single season drama, “Sharp Objects,” came to its shocking finale Sunday.

Despite some brilliant performances the series is unfortunately a narrative failure.

This is the third adaptation of a Gillian Flynn novel. The first two were mainstream film releases. David Fincher’s “Gone Girl” came first, and it’s the best adaptation of Flynn’s work. “Dark Places” received mostly negative reviews. But HBO’s turn with Flynn has received almost universal acclaim.

The praise is mostly overblown.

Only three of the eight hours they stretched this adaptation into are good. The show is mostly banal, a crush of confusing depictions of bourgeois human suffering. There is not much in the way of plot or character. Mostly the viewer is treated to scenes of the actors drinking or wallowing in existential turmoil.

This kind of suffering isn’t tolerable when it doesn’t serve to advance a story. It’s possible to make suffering into a compelling narrative. “Manchester by the Sea” is a perfect example of a remarkably bleak story expertly advanced with every scene.

The film’s gut-wrenching climax is one of the most brutal and cathartic in contemporary cinema. Films like that are made much more impactful because they are films, not TV shows.

FAST FACT: Amy Adams says is took roughly four hours to apply the scars her character shows in ‘Sharp Objects.’

Modern serialized dramas need to draw the viewer into the next episode with the promise of what will happen next. But for the first five episodes it isn’t even clear that there’s a story in “Sharp Objects.” It’s simply too much time spent on establishing the same themes and revisiting the same character flaws.

If they had streamlined the script into a tight, two-plus hour film, the twists and turns would have been much more compelling. As it is, the viewer is mostly relieved when the show mercifully comes to an end.

There’s a great film hiding inside this bloated TV show.

BTS: Beyond the Dollhouse | Sharp Objects

The main character, Camille Preaker (Amy Adams), is a journalist sent back to her small Missouri hometown to cover a serial killer. She’s a severe alcoholic who engages in self harm by cutting. There are massive scars in the shape of words all over her body. It’s why she always wears pants and long sleeve shirts … even during sex.

When she returns home we learn why she treats herself with such disdain.

The small town of Wind Gap is dominated by Camille’s maleficent mother, Adora Crellin (Patricia Clarkson). A fouler soul is hard to come by. She sits like a vampire at the heart of the town sucking the life out of everyone she encounters, a feat accomplished by her own vanity. But there are darker evils in this show than narcissism.

This setting and these characters are rich for narrative exploitation. But not for eight hours. The show is very well made but it strains the viewer’s attention span. This is compounded by the fact that the various red herrings for the serial killer are never portrayed convincingly.

The actors are fine. It’s a narrative problem. There’s simply no epistemic tension. It’s obvious from the get go that none of the suspects killed anyone. So any whodunit draw is virtually extinguished upon contact.

‘Queen of the Underworld’ Ep. 8 Official Clip | Sharp Objects | HBO

Flaws aside, there’s a lot to like about “Sharp Objects,” starting wtih Adams. She’s the greatest actress of her generation, and probably of all time. She is without peer. She has an unparalleled ability to move between emotions with total naturalistic grace. She never acts. She emotes. Her eyes are a window into humanity itself.

This is the meatiest part of her career thus far.

And watching her inhabit Camille Preaker elicits a response that is assuredly similar to watching Marlon Brando in 1954’s “On the Waterfront.” She is a master of the craft.

The rest of the cast is also excellent. After Adams the real stand out is Clarkson. As Adora she embodies all the pathetic humid dysfunction of a Tennessee Williams’ play. She’s a loving monster, or maybe her twisted version of mother love is the monster. Either way, nothing about Clarkson’s performance is relatable. She is utterly detestable, seeping narcissistic monomania with every out breath.

There’s a debate that rages over whether or not Missouri (where the show is set) is part of the South. That debate is beyond the scope of this review but on some level Missouri must be part of the South. Because this show is definitely Southern Gothic.

“Sharp Objects” just feels sticky. Not just in that sweaty, southern way but also because it moves at such a slow place the viewer feels as though they’ve become stuck in the story. The good parts are sweet indeed but mostly you simply can’t move.

Adams’ performance alone is so powerful that its worth giving this show a watch. But don’t expect to be riveted through every single scene. This is not “True Detective: Southern Gothic.” It’s a monumentally slow burn, and while the final payoff is shocking it doesn’t really feel earned or believable.

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