Shining Girls’ supernatural elements tussle with the show’s taut, sinister tone

Emmy-winner Elisabeth Moss (The Handmaid’s Tale) and Wagner Moura (Narcos) star in this reality-warping mystery series. Recommending you avoid giving this show even a cursory Google, Amelia Berry found it strikes a great balance with its core mystery (not so much its balance in tone).

Adapted from Lauren Beukes’ bestselling 2013 novel, Shining Girls is a serial killer thriller with a hearty dollop of supernatural horror. Elisabeth Moss stars as Kirby Mazrachi, an archivist at the Chicago Sun-Times left with a tenuously loose grip on reality after a near-lethal assault. Suspecting that a recent murder is connected to her attack, she teams up with wonderfully crumpled bad-boy journalist Dan Velazquez (Wagner Moura) to track down her assailant.

It’s hard to describe much more of what Shining Girls is actually about without giving the game away, and this is definitely the kind of show where you probably want to avoid giving it even a cursory Google. Suffice it to say that reality-shifting shenanigans sit cheek to jowl with some pretty serious death and brutality. Tonally, this can get a bit awkward. Particularly in the series’ first half, it can sometimes feel like the TARDIS has dropped into the middle of Silence of the Lambs, with the supernatural elements threatening to derail the programme’s taut and sinister tone.

Once you get past the goofier aspects of the premise though, Shining Girls has a lot to give. Slickly put together and boasting some fantastic production design, it makes the most of its early ’90s setting, packing out every corner of the Sun-Times offices with Pisa-esque towers of paper, crusty lurid mugs, and dusty cream coloured word processors. The soundtrack also feels like a labour of love, eschewing familiar ‘92 chart toppers in favour of digging into left-of-the-dial classics like Orange Juice, The Damned, and Pixies for some fun bits of characterisation.

In the central role, Elisabeth Moss initially feels like an odd choice to play a frumpy, awkward Bikini Kill fan, but as the character slowly comes into her own, Moss’s performance grows into something more substantial. Wagner Moura, on the other hand, is instantly at home as Dan Velazquez, infusing the alcoholic single dad (and Os Mutantes fan) with a lot of charm and warmth. For the villain, Jamie Bell is genuinely chilling and unpleasant as shady drifter Harper (more of a Leonard Cohen guy), going a long way to drive the tension right from the show’s opening moments.

As a mystery-based thriller, Shining Girls strikes a great balance, each episode drip-feeding just enough new information to keep you on the edge of your seat. With Kirby’s unsteady experience of reality as our central perspective, the story feels dynamic and unpredictable without ever straying too far into the weeds. Although extremely canny viewers will be able to grok the gist of what’s happening by the end of the first episode, there’s more than enough meat to the characters and plot to keep you going even once you’ve figured out the core conceit (good news for you Googlers).

While it’s mostly to its benefit that Shining Girls doesn’t try and over-explain its freakier elements, this does leave the show’s ending in an interesting place. For some viewers, the lack of a clear “why” will be an invitation for an instant rewatch, searching for clues and missed connections. For others, it’ll just be a bit of a letdown. Look a little bit past its disappointing denouement though, and Shining Girls is a gruesome crime story with a Twilight Zone twist and plenty to recommend it.