REVIEW: ‘Shining Girls’ Is An Ambitious Crime Drama That Misses The Mark

Rating: 3 out of 5.

“There is still a disconnect between the narrative and analysis of trauma”

Elizabeth Moss makes her television comeback in Apple TV+’s Shining Girls, a series that focuses on a reporter obsessed with tracking a time-travelling serial killer. Based on a novel originally written by Lauren Beukes, the show is produced by Moss and Leonardo DiCaprio. Moss’s character Kirby Mazrachi’s entire life is upended by this serial killer and she gets lost in time and reality, and some of it doesn’t really make any sense to her. Despite her mother and everyone else around protesting against her involvement in the investigation, she stays strong and resilient throughout it all and learns to deal with her trauma and the ordeal of reality shifting around her. 

Moss, whose resumé is stacked with shows like Mad Men and The Handmaid’s Tale, is sure to wow the audience with her performance in Shining Girls. She plays an intense role and shows the gradual torment that her character goes through due to her physical trauma. Kirby is an archivist at the Chicago Sun-Times in 1992, and six years earlier, she was brutally attacked by a vicious assailant that was never caught. Since then, she has started over with a new identity; however, due to this drama, she was left physically and emotionally scarred. Meanwhile, washed-up journalist Dan (Wagner Moura) suspects that he may have found another victim of the same attacker. Kirby begins to help Dan investigate the murders that trace back in time and dig up the past victims. Soon they find out that the untraceable serial killer Harper (Jaime Bell) might have his sights set on Jin-sook (Phillipa Soo), who works as a researcher at the Adler Planetarium. 

Elisabeth Moss and Wagner Moura in 'Shining Girls'. They sit at a table together with papers in front of them.
Image courtesy of Apple TV+

Shining Girls presents the aftermath of how victims of physical assault deal with trauma. In Kirby’s case, she experiences unexplained changes in her reality. From alterations to her hair and the apartment she lives in, from living with her mother (Amy Brenneman) to being estranged from her, all of these changes are the result of a phenomenon that messes with Kirby’s head. As she begins to go through her trauma again with Dan, her mother is cautious because there is a chance that she might become re-traumatised, let alone stalked by her attacker, whom the authorities have not found yet. For Kirby, maybe finding the killer is the closure that she needs and the path to move on with her life. 

Despite all of these complex themes, the show doesn’t really analyse how trauma and abuse can take a toll on someone, even though Kirby’s character is written for that purpose. It’s a complex and nuanced story, but what it lacks is the exploration of Kirby’s assault and her survival, which gets lost in the other storylines, even though it is briefly discussed. On the other hand, Bell is the perfect actor to play the role of a conniving and mysterious killer opposite Moss. There is an ongoing duel between Moss and Bell’s characters, and it’s almost unnerving and creepy to watch these two actors interact with each other. 

Jamie Bell in 'Shining Girls' walking down an out-of-focus hallway.
Image courtesy of Apple TV+

Shining Girls is an eight-episode series that promises to build up an intense story of a serial killer, but the non-linear structure becomes uneven and clunky. The show doesn’t care much about character study, especially when it comes to Kirby’s trauma. Instead, it focuses on symbolism and murder, and there is still a disconnect between the narrative and analysis of trauma, possibly due to pacing and the lack of emotional heft. Shining Girls attempts to find an ambitious footing in the abundance of time travel series and movies that are popular now. However, it’s no wonder the show feels lacking as not every element or storyline works, and somehow, it gets lost in the complex mechanics rather than focusing on the characters’ emotions.