“Shining Girls” should not be entered into lightly. Check that: Discussion of “Shining Girls,” including reviews like this one, should not be entered into lightly. While the Apple TV+ series certainly merits fair warning for its mature themes — this may be the dead girl mystery to end all dead girl mysteries — learning too much about its premise may detract from its rewarding twists and turns. The first four episodes are built with a precision worth appreciating on its own. Trust is earned steadily. Each narrative choice feels purposeful. So when events shift from what’s expected of prestige crime thrillers, you’re already on board.
Fear not, faithful readers: No spoilers will be listed here, even if those of you familiar with the source material — Lauren Beukes’ 2013 novel “The Shining Girls” — already know what’s up. (If unfamiliar, avoid the Wikipedia page. There’s no coming back from the first sentence.) Showrunner Silka Luisa’s adaptation is far from straightforward; our point of entry is flipped, among other maneuvers, but even reorganizing a book described as “extremely complex” isn’t enough to derail the assurance of these early episodes. But rather than continue to speak with opaque enthusiasm (or go too far down the “what constitutes a spoiler” rabbit hole), perhaps the simplest way to sum up how “Shining Girls” feels halfway through is by reminding everyone of one well-established fact: When it comes to TV, Elisabeth Moss does not miss.
While also serving as executive producer, Moss plays Kirby Mazrachi, a newspaper archivist working at the Chicago Sun-Times in the early ’90s. She listens to a walkman while she pulls old clippings (actual, physical, newspaper clippings) for a full staff of reporters filling out the hectic newsroom. (Oh, those were the days.) Years earlier, Kirby was well on her way to becoming one of them. But a gruesome attack left her out of the game too long, stealing her time, her assertiveness, and her memory.
Now, when Kirby comes home, she pulls out a diary to record and verify basic facts about her life. She lives with her mother, Rachel (Amy Brenneman, as a rebellious local rock singer). Her desk at work is the one under a leaky pipe. She has a cat named Grendel — or is it a dog named Grendel? One day, she’s petting a purring tabby, but the next, a slobbering pup bursts through her door. It’s not just her memory that betrays her. It’s her mind.
Kirby takes the label “unreliable narrator” to an extreme, but Luisa’s scripts and direction from Emmy-winner Michelle MacLaren balance her fractured perspective in a number of shrewd ways. For one, Kirby becomes more and more discerning as she investigates her assailant. When a recent murder mirrors what happened to her, the cops call Kirby in to identify a suspect. Only Kirby doesn’t remember him. All she remembers is what it felt like and his voice. It’s not much to go on, but her colleague at the Sun-Times, Dan Velazquez (a magnificently disheveled Wagner Moura), is determined to keep digging. Soon enough, they’re working as a team, trying to connect the dots between cases.
The show’s other dominant voice is the killer’s, a man named Harper (Jamie Bell) who you meet in the opening moments. “Shining Girls” isn’t a whodunit; it’s a howdunit. Kirby and Dan may be combing through files to find potential suspects, but the audience is told right away who they’re looking for. What they show him doing veers too far into spoiler territory, but the choice to show him cleanly grounds the series. No matter how unsteady Kirby may seem, having an omniscient window into Harper’s actions helps keep the plot securely connected.
Also helping are a bounty of inexhaustible pleasures. The ’90s time period is recreated through crinkling papers, greasy diners, and rickety cars. Chicago’s red iron bridges, lakeside beaches, and long-standing institutions (shout-out to the Adler Planetarium) are key locations, not just pretty establishing shots. In the long TV history of heavy-drinking, hard-nosed journalists, no one has looked more haggard or determined than Moura’s intrepid reporter. Brenneman has the time of her life cussing out her bandmates and wailing along to her records. Bell doesn’t separate Harper’s seductive charisma from his brimming menace, which makes the killer unpredictable — and thus, extra scary.
Holding it all together is Moss. How an actor so drawn to anguished characters can remain so consistently thrilling to watch I do not understand. Not since Peggy Olson was knocking beers back at Sterling Cooper & Partners has Moss played a part that offered even a quarter as much casual frivolity as it does sobering intensity. And her Kirby is intense. Anyone constantly questioning the world around them would have to be, just to find their way home at the end of the day. Moss acknowledges that shakiness, as well as the shields Kirby’s put up to create some sense of stability, but she also feeds off the frustration of knowing who’s to blame for this difficult life. Tracking her mounting courage amid unceasing confusion is exciting, but seeing Moss find a through-line for a character almost completely adrift is even better.
Like any mystery, it’s hard to fully assess “Shining Girls” after seeing only half the season. The series isn’t really about anything yet. As a fully engaging thriller, it doesn’t have to say something substantial to be worth watching. (Though it does encourage people to confront their trauma rather than bury it, which is great, and there are about a dozen different routes left to take regarding memories’ grip on the present.) Things could go off the rails in the closing chapters, tainting the attentive construction, arresting performances, and spine-tingling teases. But the creative trio of Moss, MacLaren, and Luisa has made me a believer. These first four episodes aren’t just set-up. They’re exhilarating, and in just a few months, I can’t wait to talk about all eight from start to finish. Until then, maybe keep your own sleuthing to a minimum.
“Shining Girls” premiered at the 2022 SXSW Film Festival. Apple TV+ will release the drama series Friday, April 29.