The delicious, sticky darkness of HBO’s Sharp Objects

Dead girls, wrap-around porches and enervating humidity: this crime drama is like the bastard child of Carson McCullers and Big Little Lies.

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If the bastard child of Carson McCullers and Liane “Big Little Lies” Moriarty sounds like your idea of heaven, then Sharp Objects (9pm, 16 July), based on Gillian “Gone Girl” Flynn’s first novel, must be very much up your strasse.

Here, in an adaptation by Marti Noxon, are three or four vanity units-full of the female competitiveness that made Big Little Lies so tartly delicious – only now they come cloaked in the sticky darkness that belongs to those places where the cicadas are deafening, the manners old-fashioned, and the cocktails sweet and strong. By which I mean, of course, the Deep South. Yes, yes: strictly speaking the action takes place in the Midwest, in a small Missouri town called Wind Gap. But the mood is so Charleston, South Carolina, that truly you would never know.

Amy Adams plays Camille Preaker, a reporter sent by her editor in St Louis back to the place where she grew up to write about two girls: one dead, the other still only missing when Camille arrives. She’s reluctant. Dead girls are not her thing; she lost her sister as a child. Plus, her mother, played with lunatic brilliance by Patricia Clarkson – the woman’s floaty pastel housecoats alone are enough to make you run a mile – is not exactly her best pal. But she has no choice.

Worried about her drinking and her mental health, Camille’s kindly boss is insistent that this might be just the big, absorbing story she needs. Big story? Well, it does seem that a serial killer may indeed be on the loose, one with a fondness for removing his victims’ teeth to boot. Then again, Camille’s talents as a reporter are risible. A toddler would ask better questions. A dyslexic wombat would take more notes.

It’s all very slick, of course. This is an HBO drama, and it loves its languid little self half to death. But for all that I’m generally a fool for wrap-around porches and enervating humidity, I can’t say I’m entirely gripped just yet. Its strangeness seems slightly fey to me (Camille’s half-sister Amma has a doll’s house that is an exact replica of the sprawling family home) and its nastiness just a touch overdone (a curious detective spends an evening pulling the teeth from a pig’s head with pliers, the better to work out what kind of effort the killer had to put in).

At this point, you want to stick with it only for its female stars: Adams, at the top of her game as an I-can-barely-be-bothered-to-get-dressed alcoholic; and Clarkson, whose porcelain creepiness belongs to another screenplay all together, but which casts a spell all the same. The long guerrilla war they’re fighting with one another is just so much more fascinating than the question of what manner of monster might be out there, stalking Wind Gap’s innocent and not-so-innocent teenagers.

Chris Lang’s Unforgotten (9pm, 15 July), back for a third series, is a brilliant cop show disguised as a bog-standard one. You settle into it thinking that no DCI in history has ever been so ludicrously sensitive as Cassie Stuart (Nicola Walker), nor any list of murder suspects so preposterously colourful and middle-class as those she’s about to investigate. But then, like a window closing, your cynicism suddenly snaps shut.

Is it the plot that seduces? Perhaps. Lang’s are intricate, their strands trailed like breadcrumbs through a forest. Then again, Stuart and her partner, DI Sunny Khan (Sanjeev Bhaskar), investigate only historical cases, a fact that allows for every possible permutation of hope: its ineffable strength, its fleeting fragility, and all points in between. This, in other words, is a show that comes not only with a body, but with a certain universality: a feeling of sand running slowly but surely through an hour glass.

One episode in, and already I’m hooked on the characters who may, or may not, be connected to a body found beneath the central reservation of the M1 motorway: a GP played by Alex Jennings, an artist played by James Fleet, a TV quiz show host played by Kevin McNally. All three are not only in possession of what we might call hot heads; they’re also exactly the kind to underestimate the diffident Cassie and Sunny – and therein, for one of them at least, lies his long-dreaded downfall. 

 

Sharp Objects (Sky Atlantic)
Unforgotten (ITV)

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article appears in the 20 July 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump-Putin pact