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‘Sharp Objects’ Is a Mood

But can a TV show survive on mood alone? And can you make a mystery show where the mystery is beside the point?

A treated photo of Amy Adams in ‘Sharp Objects’ HBO/Ringer illustration

Like many critics, I’ve aired a fair number of gripes with the binge model through the years. Making every episode of a season available at once erodes the episode as an art form. It doesn’t give a series time to grow, nor snowball into a phenomenon. It chips away at the collective viewing experience, which is part of what defines television as a universalizing mass medium.

But during the past month and a half, Sharp Objects has mounted an inadvertent case for the binge. HBO’s limited series, the intended successor to last year’s wildly popular Emmy magnet Big Little Lies, has aired week to week, immersing viewers in the sultry claustrophobia of Wind Gap, Missouri, for an hour at a time. Anecdotally, though, I’ve found that Jean-Marc Vallée’s direction hasn’t been having its intended hypnotic effect. One friend described his Sunday night ritual as “suffering through” the show; another complained that every episode, seven out of eight of which have aired thus far, is “exactly the same.” Several Ringer staffers have quit watching altogether. (Actual audience numbers have stayed modest yet relatively steady, hovering just above a million for the bulk of Sharp Objects run.) I’ve sensed a palpable air of obligation: with a cast like that, with source material like that, with a network like that, people definitely feel that they should be watching. They also don’t necessarily want to.

This is a far cry from Sharp Objects initial reception from critics, including myself.Sharp Objects Is Stunning, Raw, and Violently Beautiful,” declared the headline in Vanity Fair. Amy Adams’s performance “is so lived-in and matter-of-fact … that she more than carries it all,” wrote Rolling Stone’s Alan Sepinwall. “One gives oneself away to the story,” marveled Daniel D’Addario in Variety. There was at least some dissent, but the prevailing tone was one of breathless excitement.

Granted, Sharp Objects was never going to offer the camp pleasures of Big Little Lies, which larded its theoretical murder mystery with so much Actressing it quickly became clear the whodunnit was beside the point. Sharp Objects is a gloomy meditation on lingering trauma, spinning Gillian Flynn’s debut novel into a Southern Gothic fantasia of mint juleps and predatory violence. It’s not fun to watch Patricia Clarkson’s withholding matriarch tell her daughter, Amy Adams’s hapless reporter, that she’s never loved her, at least not the way it was fun to make GIFs of Laura Dern screaming “I SAID THANK YOUUUUUUU” on a Pacific-adjacent terrace. But coupled with Vallée’s elliptical, dreamy cutaways, Sharp Objects mood is certainly engrossing—so much so that, for many reviewers, it was enough to sustain interest through an admittedly scanty plot.

Yet many haven’t been so willing to make that tradeoff. Sharp Objects inciting incident is the gruesome death of two teenage girls in one year, and though Adams’s Camille Preaker is repeatedly told by her editor she isn’t in Wind Gap to solve the murders, a mystery show comes with the natural expectation of answers and the momentum that comes with them. Personally, I appreciate the way Sharp Objects turns that anticipation on its head, demonstrating its priorities by deferring others; this is a story not about specific crimes, but the culture that led to them and the women who still endure it. I also understand why others don’t share my patience for a series that spends an entire episode on a macabre Civil War reenactment staged in the main characters’ front yard.

The divided reception of Sharp Objects asks a fascinating question about this era in TV, when the goodwill bought by star power allows for experimentation and the need to stand out from an overcrowded landscape incentivizes it. The series’ leisurely pace matches the stultifying atmosphere it’s trying to channel, but it also means that the penultimate episode, last Sunday’s “Falling,” is the first that brings us any closer to identifying the killer than the suspects laid out in the premiere: Camille discovers her mother, a wealthy and powerful business owner with a hold over the local police, likely has some form of Munchausen by proxy; Clarkson’s Adora regularly poisons Camille’s teenaged half sister Amma (Eliza Scanlen), is probably responsible for the death of Camille’s younger sister Marian, and is the logical prime suspect in the deaths of two more high school–age girls. Prior to these reveals, Sharp Objects put most of its eggs in a single, hazily outlined basket: its vibe. But in 2018, can a TV show survive on vibe alone? It’s a barrier to entry facing a handful of other series: AMC’s chilled-out Lodge 49, for example, or even Terence Nance’s kinetic, free-associative Random Acts of Flyness, also on HBO. Sharp Objects still leads the pack in on-paper appeal (movie stars! Gone Girl!) versus in-practice challenges (is that another shot of Young Camille on roller skates?).

I’m convinced part of the answer to the problem of vibe versus viability lies in a show’s format. Because HBO provided every episode of Sharp Objects except Sunday’s finale in advance, I and many other members of the media imbibed the show through long, sustained gulps, enveloping ourselves in hours of story at a time. What registers as painfully slow or teasing in a week-to-week broadcast feels more like a pleasant airiness when taken in as a batch. Sharp Objects favors depth over breadth, putting down roots over rolling onward. Vallée and creator Marti Noxon dig into the textures and aura of Wind Gap, following rebellious Amma to the family hog farm, or Adora on a tour of a mansion, or Camille on one of her many, many night drives. That’s time a more conventionally oriented show would spend on interrogations and lead-chasing. And depending on how the audience is consuming it, the story can be either refreshingly nonlinear or infuriatingly aimless. A staggered release promises a slow drip of information. A single blast offers room to explore.

I’ve maintained my affection for Sharp Objects through the month and a half since I first viewed the bulk of it. In the meantime, however, I’ve grown sympathetic to my friends and colleagues’ frustrations. Ultimately, I think television is better off for having creative teams willing to risk putting off some viewers in the interest of getting weird and adventurous. (Besides, if those Big Little Lies 2 set photos of Reese Witherspoon hurling an ice cream cone at Meryl Streep are any indication, fan service will get its day in the sun soon enough.) Still, the drawback of such an alienating approach is that at least some of the audience ends up alienated. Sharp Objects is absolutely not going to end up one of the increasing number of “limited” series that earns a second season once the demand proves high enough. Then again, it was never going to.

I still haven’t watched my screener for Sunday’s finale. (I have, in a fit of impatience, read the Wikipedia plot summary of Flynn’s book, whose twists may or may not be replicated in the adaptation.) I suspect that, whatever happens, the episode won’t change anyone’s minds about the seven that preceded it. Sharp Objects isn’t going to suddenly transform into a show that cares about dramatic unveilings and urgent suspense; even if it does, that won’t change what came before, much to the chagrin of people who spent seven weeks waiting for those features to manifest. On the other hand, those of us who’ve enjoyed the journey without many hints at a destination aren’t really expecting a traditional payoff, and therefore won’t mind the absence of one. Can a TV show survive on vibe alone? The answer is as predictable as it is satisfying: not for everyone—but at least for now, “not everyone” is still more than enough.

Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.