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Movie Star TV Takes a Dark Turn With ‘Sharp Objects’

HBO’s newest big-name series—starring Amy Adams and Patricia Clarkson—has the hallmarks and pedigree of a blockbuster show. It’s also quite unsettling.

Patricia Clarkson and Amy Adams HBO/Ringer illustration

When discussing Sharp Objects, it’s only a matter of time before one makes the comparison to Big Little Lies. Both are limited series (in name, at least) airing on HBO. Both are directed entirely by Jean-Marc Vallée, the Academy Award–nominated, French-Canadian filmmaker behind Dallas Buyers Club and Wild. Both are adapted from works of genre fiction by female novelists. And both are led by stars for whom “A-list” is almost an understatement: Big Little Lies by Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, and soon, Meryl Streep; Sharp Objects by Amy Adams.

Big Little Lies itself was the vanguard of an emerging genre of small screen entertainment—a genre in which Sharp Objects is only the latest entry. Call it Movie Star Television, a Peak TV shift for which Big Little Lies was the wildly successful trial balloon. For networks that don’t flinch at a hefty price tag, these series offer an easily marketable hook; for the stars themselves, they offer meaty roles, a still-finite commitment, and often, some measure of creative control. (Witherspoon and Kidman are executive producers on Big Little Lies, as is Adams on Sharp Objects.)

HBO remains the primary practitioner of the strategy, with Sharp Objects, the Big Little Lies follow-up, and Julia Roberts’s Today Will Be Different on the horizon. Other providers, however, were quick to catch on. Last year, Apple acquired a behind-the-scenes morning-show drama starring Witherspoon and Jennifer Aniston for its impending slate of original programming; this May, the tech company ordered Octavia Spencer’s Are You Sleeping to series. Hulu has both George Clooney’s Catch-22 and Little Fires Everywhere, another Witherspoon project, costarring Kerry Washington, in the pipeline. Amazon released its first images from Homecoming, Roberts’s other TV project, last month. That Roberts and Witherspoon, two actresses who made their names as heroines, are spearheading this trend is no coincidence. As the romantic comedy, tailor-made to showcase the talent of female movie stars, has declined, those stars have started to use their hard-earned capital to generate opportunities for themselves on a trendier platform.

The Movie Star Show’s ultimate success is, of course, dependent on its central players’ abilities to deliver on the promise of their presence. Fortunately for Sharp Objects, Adams delivers by playing against type, stripping away the bubbly optimism of iconic roles like Princess Giselle while keeping the vulnerability. The five-time Academy Award nominee plays Camille Preaker, an alcoholic crime reporter pushed by her editor to look into a missing persons case in Wind Gap, Missouri, her hometown and the site of some unspoken trauma. Paired with Patricia Clarkson as Camille’s estranged mother Adora, an aging Southern belle eerily unstuck from time, Adams’s performance transcends its roots in noir cliché, deeply embodying the investigator who seeks knowledge of others while avoiding any introspection.

Adams imbues Camille with a wary exhaustion, run down from decades of trying to outpace her demons. Her nervous fidgets and thousand-yard stare work almost perfectly in concert with Vallée’s direction, whose signature rapid-cut montages here serve a more utilitarian function than usual, interspersing Camille’s guarded exterior with the violent, haunting memories she’s trying and failing to suppress. The result is a pairing of form and function that feels far more seamless than Big Little Lies’, though creator Marti Noxon—an alumna of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Mad Men who cocreated Unreal and spearheaded AMC’s Dietland—reported some on-set “screaming matches” occurred when she and Vallée had to reconcile her precisely written scripts with his intensely visual style. Noxon has sole writing credit on the series premiere, “Vanish,” but she worked with other writers for the remaining seven episodes, including Gone Girl novelist Gillian Flynn, on whose 2006 debut novel Sharp Objects is based.

Though the harrowing broad strokes are clear enough, the specifics of Camille’s troubled past remain mysterious. “Vanish” reveals she lost a younger sister as a teenager, but other flashes come and go without context: a toilet seat, a cleaning cart stocked with chemicals, a younger woman Camille spies in the mirror. (Adams’s younger self is portrayed by Sophia Lillis, the breakout star of It; the resemblance is, in keeping with Sharper Objects’ eerie mood, uncanny.) Before Camille can fully relive these experiences—and the audience, by extension, can witness them for the first time—she drinks. A lot.

Long before the arresting final shot of “Vanish,” it’s obvious from Adams’s signaling that Camille drinks out of compulsion, not pleasure. The character is styled in full-coverage black that looks like armor when held up against Wind Gap’s feminine pastels. Even Camille’s hair, grown out and usually covering at least some of Adams’s delicate features, reads as defensive. Her luggage is a mess of empty bottles and cheap candy bars; Adams stopped working out before production to achieve the “bloated” look of a barely functioning person dealing with addiction.

Sharp Objects cast isn’t as jaw-droppingly stacked as its predecessor’s, but almost immediately upon Camille’s arrival in Wind Gap, Adams meets her match in Clarkson. When describing the Tennessee-adjacent hog-farming town to her editor, Camille divides its citizens into two subspecies: trash and old money. (Well, three: Camille counts herself as “trash from old money.”) Clarkson’s Adora falls firmly in the latter camp, the kind of propriety-obsessed woman who pairs a nightgown with heels and whose first response to finding her troubled child at the door is “The house is not up to par for visitors, I’m afraid.” Along with Camille’s wallflower of a stepfather, Adora lives in a palatial home that’s been in the family for generations. The place exists somewhere between charming relic and creepy mausoleum: Adora employs a servant, an African American woman, who wears an honest-to-God maid’s uniform; the onetime bedroom of Camille’s sister is kept perfectly preserved; Camille’s teenage half-sister, Amma (Eliza Scanlen), describes herself as Adora’s “little doll to dress up.” Amma lives a double life, switching from Lilly Pulitzer–type ensembles to self-described “civvies” the moment she’s out from under Adora’s watchful eye. Adams serves as Sharp Objects audience surrogate, but Clarkson and Scanlen are tasked with furnishing its unsettling, anachronistic vibe. The goosebumps on my arms for most of “Vanish” indicate they succeed.

Scanlen will come out of Sharp Objects a rising star. Clarkson, however, is already an Academy Award nominee in her own right, and amplifies Adams’s star power with a chilling turn of her own. Clarkson’s version of Adora reads like Joan Didion by way of Tennessee Williams: Frail yet steely, overwhelmed yet aggressive, she turns denial into an instrument of brute force. Unsurprisingly for someone consumed by order and appearances, Adora disapproves of Camille’s entire profession. Without Clarkson ever raising her voice above a victimized whisper, Adora effectively shunts Camille to the margins by silencing and demeaning her at every turn. She instructs her daughter to never mention any details of her work or the investigation. (“I’ll just pretend you’re on summer vacation.”) When Camille experiences the objective horror of discovering the missing teenager’s body, Adora shuts her down before she can begin to vent. (“I can’t have that kind of talk around here.”) Clarkson’s line readings are simultaneously feather-soft and razor-sharp. Each one of her murmurs lands like a slap in the face, with Adams registering some new combination of anguish, exasperation, and anger each time.

Part Southern Gothic, part crime yarn, Sharp Objects hews closely to the conventions of its templates: the paternalistic boss, the loner cop, the amaretto sours on the porch. Adora is a classic archetype of conservative femininity—apart from her disarming habit of plucking her eyelashes when she’s under stress. Camille is a damaged searcher, the kind found in female-led detective stories from Prime Suspect to Top of the Lake—but she’s the only one who sleeps with headphones to drown out the noise. Together, the two women form the core of a story about toxic legacies, internalized pain, and violence, both subtle and grotesque. Adams and Clarkson prove Movie Star TV was neither a one-time fluke nor, in this case, a flashy lure without payoff. It’s here to stay, and thus far, viewers are better off for it.

Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.