Sharp Objects” (9 p.m. Eastern Sundays on HBO) takes a familiar genre – a crime journalist investigating small-town murders – and turns it into a gilded-frame French painting. The miniseries is stacked with talent at the top of their respective games, but director Jean-Marc Vallee – who helmed last year’s “Big Little Lies” – is the one I’m most drawn to talk about. In a mere hour, he immerses us in the Southern charms and chills of Wind Gap, in the bootheel of Missouri, and the beauty and tragedy of our heroine, Camille.
The camera has never loved Amy Adams more, but at the same time, crime reporter Camille is such an alcohol- and junk-food-fueled sad sack that Jessica Jones would be appalled. By the end of the hour, to a remarkable degree, I knew Camille’s career, lifestyle, family and hometown on an emotional level. Her mother, Adora (Patricia Clarkson), is old-fashioned, believing girls should be pretty and proper. In her second wind as the matriarch of a grand estate in this hog-butchering town of 2,000, Adora’s family includes vinyl-record-loving husband Alan (Henry Czerny) and teenage daughter Amma (Eliza Scanlen).
This family is neither tight nor broken, but intriguingly in-between. Adora complains that Camille hasn’t phoned in “months,” which is long enough to show this isn’t a Lorelai-and-Rory relationship but nor is it a shattered bond. When Camille arrives at the house, she hugs one person: the black maid, who in a throwback to yesteryear is treated like “the help” by the others. Amma, presumably like Camille before her, sneaks out and switches out her dress and sweater for normal teenager clothes when hanging out with her friends.
Time wraps around itself in Wind Gap, and in the mind of the 40-ish Camille, who is psychologically in her teenage years, when her sister died. In flashbacks, tomboy Camille (Sophia Lillis of “It”) swims in the forest-bound creek, a 1960s-ish activity in the 1980s or ’90s. Present-day Camille listens to music on a smartphone, but favors 1970s rock and older blues numbers. Amma and her friends wear tube socks and rollerskate, another retro activity that highlights Wind Gap’s stagnancy.
Along with Vallee, the series boasts Gillian Flynn of “Gone Girl” fame, who wrote the “Sharp Objects” novel and is on the writing staff, and showrunner Marti Noxon, who cut her teeth on “Buffy” and gained further acclaim for “UnReal.”
Like the Anna Paquin series “Bellevue,” “Sharp Objects” is about a modern murder case that brings up old memories in the woman who digs into it. Yet Noxon and Flynn hold back so many details that I suspect my initial conceptions of the series’ reason-for-being could be altered as it goes forward. (If not, it just means I’ve been sucked into the web spun by Vallee, which I won’t complain about.) For example, we know the raw fact and emotion of Camille’s sister dying as a teenager, but we don’t know if or how that ties into this new string of murders.
Two girls are victims by the end of episode one, and Camille and some of Wind Gap’s current teens are among the group that comes upon the second corpse, like something out of “Stand By Me.” In broad daylight in the sparse downtown, a girl’s body is found propped up on a shaded sill in an alley. Without being crass, Vallee lingers on it enough to give us a sense of what it would be like to come upon a corpse. When Detective Willis (“The Mindy Project’s” Chris Messina) suggests to Camille that they take a moment to get their bearings before comparing notes, it seems appropriate. I wasn’t frustrated that the case isn’t progressing faster.
As if serial murders aren’t enough of a hook, there’s an intriguing vibe around Camille’s job with the St. Louis Chronicle (a fictional stand-in for the Post-Dispatch). Her editor, Frank (“Medium’s” Miguel Sandoval), sends Camille to her hometown to report on these crimes with a personal touch. Based only on this episode, I could quibble about the newspaper’s portrayal. Frank has to talk Camille into going, when in reality, it would be the reporter talking the editor into the story: It will be expensive to cover, since it involves travel, lodging and long hours. I would hazard a guess that Frank is actually Camille’s father – it would explain why the supposedly inept Camille still has a job — except that he is clearly unfamiliar with Wind Gap.
But I’m confident that as the series moves forward, we’ll get a better sense of Camille as a good, if unorthodox, reporter. I think the fact that she feels everything deeply simultaneously makes her good at her job and wrecks her life.
That said, “Sharp Objects” sidesteps being another series that artfully wallows in misery — like this year’s “Bellevue,” “The Alienist” and “The Terror.” I liked all of those, but I’m ready for a murder mystery with a smidgen of hopefulness. For all of “Sharp Objects’ ” dark subject matter, I feel like there’s light at the end of its time-bending tunnel, and perhaps even within it.