Created by Silka Luisa Shining Girls (based on the book by Lauren Beukes) follows the mind-bending reality of Kirby (Elisabeth Moss) as she tries to navigate life after a devastating near-death attack. This series, which may very well only be one season (or at least I hope) can be head-scratching, nearly anxiety-inducing at times, but remains an intriguing, immaculately performed story that interweaves sci-fi elements with real character-driven drama.
In part, this series focuses on Kirby and her frequently changing reality. She takes notes each day reminding her of her place and where she is within this world as it shifts unexpectedly. One day her desk is moved; another it’s her apartment, her lifestyle, her hair, her pet – you name it. After surviving a nearly fatal attack, she becomes aware of a recent murder that may be connected to her assault. This starts her on an investigative hunt for the truth, and for the assailant, played with expertly portrayed malice, by Jamie Bell as the elusive Harper.
The show takes place in Chicago in the 90s and while there is an element of time travel, it also believably lives in the world of journalism at the Chicago Sun-Times. As someone who wanted to be a reporter, but after her attack worked in the archives, Kirby is a character that embodies a woman you root for. Moss, who has proved she can really portray any role, does it again with a performance that doesn’t leave anything behind.
The case grabs the attention of struggling writer, Dan (Wagner Moura) whose career has taken some hits after dealing with addiction. The two form a unique team, discovering many grisly murders that point to a serial killer. Shifting realities often derail Kirby, and she is an unreliable narrator at times, but one who is also committed to figuring out the connections with these deaths. There are a lot of plotlines at work here, one of which is a very enthralling murder mystery and a psychological thriller. Even though we know the who, early on, the why and the telling of the events takes time to be discovered.
Harper’s character is really, truly despicable. He doesn’t generate much empathy; a clear villain. Yet, and kudos to the writers and Bell’s performance, he’s quite curious. What are his motives? Even if we don’t get all of the answers, like the novel delivers more of, we can’t help but wonder about all of the questions.
What’s ultimately frustrating but somehow simultaneously stimulating is the constant differing realities. This is where the science fiction aspect becomes especially prevalent. You feel as if you are with Kirby, understanding her confusion and her relentless perceptions of what her life is. She has all of her memories, but her surroundings and the people involved, including her mother Rachel (Amy Brenneman) and her sometimes husband Marcus (Chris Chalk) make for an overly sympathetic protagonist that truly captures the damage and struggle of someone dealing with a traumatic event. The supporting characters are as equally important as they present a level of both sustainable empathy and disconnect. Shining Girls is nothing if not a vestibule for contemplation. At times, you may feel on par with Kirby, unsure of what you are seeing.
A Mysterious Take On A Serial Killer
While most of the victims are already gone, there is one that can potentially be saved, with a riveting performance by Phillipa Soo as Jin-Sook. The relationship with her and Kirby is one I could have used more of, but it provides a sense (much like her and Dan, but varied) of recluse from her loneliness. The pain and healing of such an event can make someone feel like they are on an island, and we get to see Kirby’s resurgence which is (by its end) is as satisfying as you could hope for.
Shining Girls may not be for everyone. It is an acquired taste because, much like the lead, you’re traversing a difficult situation. The fact that this series personified this so definitively is admirable. Personally, it took me a couple of episodes, but then I was hooked.
There is a lot to potentially spoil, and I won’t. Much like many of this genre, the value is in the experience. It also is a series that earns your approval, your investment, and in its end, proves to be worthy of it. AppleTV+, I feel, has been a streaming service that has very rarely let me down. I’ve had several I’ve written about admirably here and on my other site (filminquiry.com) and some I haven’t but appreciated all the same.
Shining Girls mixes investigative mystery with science fiction in a way that never feels exploitative and it gives a voice to trauma and an inventive story to boot; an avenue for imaginative storytelling that still somehow feels grounded. Come for the intrigue, stay for the performances; everyone is at the top of their game, and Elisabeth Moss, again, proves she is one of the best actresses on television.
A perplexing series with no shortage of hard-to-watch moments, Shining Girls is an enthralling, bold tale.
I dug it.
Shining Girls Season One is available to stream on AppleTV+.