Following in the footsteps of the Emmy-winning “Big Little Lies,” HBO’s new limited series “Sharp Objects” is set in a small community with big secrets. A group of women connected by circumstance and proximity are pitted against one another, and then brought closer together, when tragedy strikes.
The eight-part series is also directed by “Big Little Lies’ ” Jean-Marc Vallée and, like his other project, features Hollywood stars. In this case, it’s Amy Adams and Patricia Clarkson who jump from the big to small screen.
The psychological thriller “Sharp Objects,” which premieres Sunday, isn’t designed to entertain like the potboiler 2017 serial drama. The enviable lifestyle of the well-to-do women in that previous series was a large part of its appeal. They may have been messed up, but they were rich and fabulous too.
As the title suggests, HBO’s new series cuts deeper when it dramatizes female-centric issues such as sexual assault, dysfunctional marriages and motherhood, making it both a more compelling and difficult watch.
Adapted from Gillian Flynn’s 2006 novel, and created by Marti Noxon (“Dietland,” “UnReal”), “Sharp Objects” follows the self-destructive journalist Camille Preaker (Adams) as she returns to her small hometown to report on the unsolved murders of two girls.
Set in the pristine, old, stately mansions and regular-folk coffee shops of the fictional Wind Gap, Mo., Camille’s own demons and fraught family history can prove scarier than the crimes she’s investigating. Her younger sister died of a mystery illness when Camille was a teen, and their wealthy mother, the image-conscious Adora (Clarkson), clearly feels the wrong daughter survived.
That and other traumas have left scars — internal and otherwise — on Camille. She’s a compulsive “cutter” whose skin bares the marks of her obsessive need to open her flesh and let out the pain. Understanding the genesis of that pain, and what it has to do with the town’s “dead girls everywhere” problem, is part of the show’s intrigue.
The gripping series is full of riddles waiting to be deciphered, and phenomenal performances by Adams and Clarkson pull viewers closer to whatever danger lies beneath with each hour-long episode.
The pacing of “Sharp Objects,” however, is frustratingly slow at times. In an effort to maintain the mystery the show holds too much back, especially in the first few episodes (seven of the series’ eight episodes were made available for review). It fills the time with lots of mood-setting shots around the sleepy town — empty creaking porch swings, eerie dark woods — and Camille’s unnerving flashbacks. Hints to the trauma she suffered as a teen are powerful at first, but they happen so often that the disturbing collection of images begin to feel more like unnecessary filler than critical clues.
The answer to who dunnit is further buried by the lack of cooperation among those investigating the murders. Big-city detective Richard Willis (Chris Messina), who has arrived in town to work the case, butts heads with Camille, who in turn has been irritating the local police chief, Vickery (Matt Craven).
No one wants to share their findings or secrets, and it’s hard to tell if the nonstop gossip around Wind Gap is an orchestrated effort to obscure the real killer’s identity, or the usual scuttlebutt enjoyed by the town’s catty Southern belle-types and bored barbershop clientele.
The trailers for “Sharp Objects” made it appear as if the series was a horror show, replete with apparitions and nightmarish gore (how many times did you have to turn away from that sewing-needle-under-the-fingernail scene?).
The true haunting story line here is the fraught family dynamic between the reckless Camille, who has vodka for breakfast and candy bars for dinner, and Adora, whose home and appearance are so pristine they must be covering up an unholy mess of sins. Adora wants Camille to stop meddling in the investigation and bringing shame to the family.
Camille persists, despite her downward spiral. When a local woman admires her for escaping the town after high school and starting a life in St. Louis, she responds “My demons are not remotely tackled, they’re just mildly concussed.”
The writing throughout is razor-sharp, likely because author Flynn (“Gone Girl”) also wrote and executive produced the series. The performance by 19-year-old Eliza Scanlen, who plays Camille’s problematic younger half-sister, Amma, is also exceptional.
Less impressive is the character of Camille’s editor at the St. Louis Chronicle, Frank Curry (Miguel Sandoval). He was adamant about sending the reluctant reporter back home to get a story that hardly merits front-page news. “Don’t be a wise ass, kiddo,” he says to her when she laments the assignment. “This could be your big break.”
He seemingly wants her to heal, or maybe he wants a journalism award, but unless his motivations tie in with whatever the great reveal is in Episode 8, this subplot feels like another waste of time.
If the finale is strong enough to connect all the dots and makes sense of the fragmented flashbacks, “Sharp Objects” has the potential to leave a lasting mark on viewers. This dark take on the complicated relationships between daughters and moms masterfully shows the ways — both positive and negative — that women learn to survive in a man’s world.
“Sharp Objects’ ” secrets are buried much deeper than the hidden truths of “Big Little Lies.” The question is can viewers stick in there long enough to get to the bottom of this painful mystery?
When: 9 p.m. Sunday
Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)