"Don't tell Mama."
Those were the three semifinal words of HBO's "Sharp Objects" on Sunday. Thereby hangs a tale.
To which a spoiler alert should probably be attached, much to my dismay.
I am no fan of spoiler alerts. My feeling has always been that once a movie or TV has been shown, its ending is "out there" just like the ending of the Bengals-Bills game Sunday. If you didn't watch or see the movie -- then that was your choice and no writer should be bound by it.
In the current overcrowded era, though, I have to admit that many people DVR shows and watch later. On Sunday, for instance, HBO's documentary on John McCain was shown in a preview on CNN in a special, unusual and completely admirable booking that responded astutely to news of McCain's death.
It would be understandable for everyone who wanted to keep up with the news to want to see the McCain doc at that scheduled TV moment -- and catch "Sharp Objects" later.
Add to that the fact the "Sharp Objects" finale packed one heck of a wallop that any watcher of the show deserves to have preserved intact. We're not talking about Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar" here (brilliant leader gets stabbed to death in the senate) or "Titanic" (the boat sinks, lots of people perish).
We're talking about an eight-hour limited series adaptation of Gillian Flynn's best-seller directed by Jean-Marc Vallee, who directed the smash and masterful limited series "Big Little Lies" that won such acclaim and ratings it was eventually treated as the opening season of a new TV show set to come next year. Meryl Streep, no less, will co-star with Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman.
The implications of that aren't so great, to be honest. That TV success can remake everyone's lives for the next year -- even a novelist whose book was made into a smash hit HBO series -- is more than a little unnerving.
So let the spoiler alert ring out. I'm talking about the controversial finale of "Sharp Objects" here, the much-discussed limited series about female self-mutilation and neurosis. Avoid it if you plan to catch up later, which I heartily recommend.
One of the shrewdest TV watchers I know wrote me after the finale aired Sunday: "You could fully enjoy 'Big Little Lies' if you hadn't read the book. For this, you needed to use closed captioning and crank up the volume to decipher the dialogue and spend an hour reading the recaps and Twitter afterward to know what happened.
"Eight hours. Dear God.
"After eight hours, the show should stand on its own and not need the roundtable of articles to explain it. Or to get people to read the book. Annoying."
I understand the point, but just as I am never put off by knowing movie or TV endings in advance, I must confess my foreknowledge (from an internet book summary) in this case didn't stop me from appreciating the horrific wallop of the ending.
I wasn't alone. I plucked all sorts of positive reactions from the critics -- "Great horror," "disturbing" (also "vexing" in that case), "riveting." Fresh tomatoes here.
The blunt jagged edge of the show's final seconds was bound to unnerve people, but I liked the way it guaranteed an actual reaction, too, even if it turned out to be a bad one. After eight hours of TV, we should be reacting somehow, don't you think?
I must admit having quite a few reservations after it was over -- none of them about the acting. My always shrewd correspondent was quite right about the show's under-recorded sound. I had to boost it throughout the series, which seems more than a little odd for such a ballyhooed show on HBO.
Nor do I think the finale's decision to show flashes of the story's actual horrifying crimes during its final credits was a proper way to end the tale.
Vallee is a director who specializes in allusive flashes of plot. In this case, they were too much like a horrific afterthought. Those final three words, "Don't tell Mama" would have been enough, in context.
It was, nevertheless, a heck of a thing. You could see one of the reasons I like Vallee's luxuriant realism so much during a scene where our heavy-drinking, self-destructive journalistic heroine, played by Amy Adams, wakes up from a malicious, dangerous drugging and as she staggers out to the hall to see if her malefactor is still around, has to stop for a couple seconds to replace a picture that has, without explanation, fallen off the wall.
That's what happens in the world, sometimes. Photographs fall off the wall for no reason. No explanation is necessary. I love directors who sometimes leave the accidents of the world in their films (Elia Kazan, Richad Lester, Martin Ritt.)
. . .
Other than his euphonious last name, Neil Simon seldom engaged me much over the years no matter how much of his work I couldn't avoid reviewing in movie adaptations and originals.
My favorite Neil Simon on film, for the record: "The Goodbye Girl" (for Richard Dreyfuss, but Marsha Mason, too), "California Suite" (for an amazing cast including everyone from Richard Pryor to Maggie Smith, but which will hobble the film's endurance because of Bill Cosby's prominence) and "The Heartbreak Kid" (where his script was directed by Elaine May in the finest comedy ever made about ethnic boys under the thrall of Golden Haired gentile women, played in the movie by Cybill Shepherd).
"The Heartbreak Kid" is a small, but terrific comic masterpiece. I hope Neil Simon thought so, too.