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Jeff Simon: 'Sharp Objects' leads off summertime 'Peak TV'

Jeff Simon

One preteen girl has been found dead. Her teeth have been removed from her head. Another preteen girl is missing. That's just in the opening minutes.

This is not the way life is supposed to occur in the small town of Wind Gap, Mo. Clearly, there's a story there; which is why a newspaper editor in St. Louis sends one of his bigger -- and most distressed -- talents to Wind Gap, to investigate and tell readers what's going on.

The St. Louis reporter's fictional name is Camille Preaker. She's played in a dandy premiere TV vehicle called "Sharp Objects" by Amy Adams. It's based on the first novel by Gillian Flynn, whose "Gone Girl" was such a sensation.

There are admittedly a few hangups to sending Camille out on the assignment. The biggest is she grew up in Wind Gap and put the place in her rear view mirror as quickly as possible. Despite her family mini-burg's version of social prominence and wealth (from the pig slaughterhouse business), her childhood was mired in misery, anger and rebellion.

But that's not all. It's not even close. Camille is a serious drinker. She empties her little vodka bottles into her water bottles and takes constant long swigs of clear fluid throughout the day -- every day. When her investigations into small town psychic sewage take her into bars, she switches to Makers Mark.

Never mind the implausibility of such liquor switching. The point being made is how abject her everyday drinking is. You can't see it really, in Adams' lead performance, which is indeed good but only because she achieves a kind of deadened affect without any of the affected speech and physical ungainliness that might come with it.

Camille is also a cutter, i.e. she often cuts and pierces her wrists or stomach or legs out of very deep psychic toxicology. She's been doing it since the death of her sister when they were kids.

Now that she's a grown woman -- a reporter -- she is still doing it. The director of HBO's eight-part "Sharp Objects" (beginning Sunday) is the extraordinary Jean-Marc Vallee, whose trademarks include a deft and haunting juggling of scenes set in the past and the present.

It is Vallee's presence that makes "Sharp Objects" one of most prestigious TV projects of the summer. Vallee is the man who gave us "Big Little Lies," one of the most impressive and honored TV shows of the past few years (all right, maybe it wasn't all the way up there with "The Sopranos," but I'd put it up there with "True Detective"). The writer of every episode of "Lies" was the TV veteran David E. Kelley and it was, in my opinion, the finest thing by far that he's ever done. That he, almost alone, didn't get an Emmy for it, I find totally baffling.

The writers of "Objects" have some heavy credentials of their own. The original novel was the first by Flynn. Her co-writer of the mini-series is its showrunner, Marti Noxon, of "UnReal" and the current "Dietland."

In the publicity released by the show, Noxon is quoted this way on the subject of Flynn and her first novel: "When I first read the book, I remember thinking to myself, 'I have to meet Gillian Flynn -- she's really screwed up like I am. This is a story that speaks to a part of women's lives that we rarely address -- our impulse to hurt ourselves and each other.'"

Vallee, as always, is capable of brilliant realistic subtleties on the fly, just as he was in "Big Little Lies."

I've seen four of the eight episodes and I must admit there are some oddities to it besides Adams' avoidance of the grosser affects of all-day boozing by almost anybody. (Mere emotional anesthesia is powerful but not quite sufficient.)

It's a slow, brooding, quiet TV show, but its weirdness and creepiness will get to you, largely because of Adams and Vallee. She might not hit the target dead center, but she's so close, she is this mini-series and she carries it with the kind of strength those movie actresses showed in HBO's "Big Little Lies."

Among the other oddities of the show, though, is that hers is the only face that is constantly seen in almost every episode. So often is the great actress Patricia Clarkson -- playing her snobbish and difficult mother -- swallowed up by darkness that she almost spends the entire first four episodes playing peek-a-boo with the camera.

I suspect there will be a walloping plot reason for this when I see the final episode, but at this point, it's an odd thing to do to a tremendous actress whose power and authority should have been balanced more deftly against Adams' stardom.

Believe me, I understand this mini-series is Adams' baby -- her own giant step into premium television in the "Peak TV" era in the way that "Big Little Lies" was Nicole Kidman's and Reese Witherspoon's.

More of Clarkson would only have made things that much stronger.

This is fine "Peak TV" era television. It's among the best these days because (not despite) its overall quietude, subtlety and deliberate pacing. This is storytelling that insinuates and stays with you when you turn the picture and sound off. I'm eager to get to episode eight.

That's how I feel after half of "Sharp Objects." How about all those other things people are rejoicing in for summer? Well, in the current TV era, you should know there's a whole new giddy kind of "reviewing" (which is nothing of the sort, really), just to get some basic info out there as widely as possible.

And that is "reviewing" just the trailers of TV series. It's only slightly more profound than reviewing book jackets, but that doesn't mean it isn't happening.

So as a reward for immersion in the dark power of "Sharp Objects," I gave myself (and whoever else wants it) a few minutes of some other summer TV to watch from their trailers. Just to let you know, then:

"Castle Rock" (Hulu, begins July 25): Here's another rotten small town full of dark secrets. This one is in Maine and, as everyone knows, it's Stephen King's fictional home sweet home. The narrator of the trailer asks us to imagine what Castle Rock's original sin was. "The Puritans who settled here?" Perhaps. "Whose sin are we paying for," he wants to know. Because "there's blood in every backyard, inside every house." (Not a good town for the real estate business.) Let's not knock it. It's one of the new shows that was able to tempt actress Sissy Spacek back into a public career.

"Making It" (NBC, July 31): Let's admit this is creative and unexpected. Amy Poehler and Nick Offerman are paired in a competition series among crafty folk. "Unique crafstmen" with unexpected materials, said Poehler, who is not kidding. Nor are Offerman and NBC executives. Paints and beads and boondoggle in prime time? You might well ask. Let's just say there is undoubtedly an audience for this. I wish it all the best.

"Jack Ryan" (Amazon, Aug. 31): Forgive me for being rude, but I told you so. Many years ago. Tom Clancy's hero makes his stand on premium TV. In the tradition of Harrison Ford and Alec Baldwin is, yes, John Krasinski, who has spent this summer moving up a couple classes on the Hollywood ladder (as the director of the successful horror film, "A Quiet Place," as well as star of this). I've been awaiting a sharp spasm of upward mobility from him for years now. I wish him well despite the fact that the trailer had the lousiest synthetic simulated version of Jimi Hendrix' "All Along the Watchtower" that has ever happened.

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