‘Shining Girls’ review: a reality-bending thriller

On April 29, Apple TV+ will release the first three episodes of shininggirls, a new thriller series starring Elizabeth Moss, Jamie Bell, and Wagner Moura. The show is an adaptation of Lauren Beukes’ 2013 novel The Shining Girlswhich is one of my all-time favorite books.

Like many fans of the novel, I’ve been simultaneously excited and wary since the series was announced back in 2020. On one hand, an incredible cast and production team was going to get Apple TV+ money to put one of the best supernatural thrillers of the last two decades on screen. On the other, there were valid concerns about how the heck they’d pull it off.

The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes (HarperCollins)

When it comes to developing characters, Beukes is one of the best writers working today. She has an uncanny knack for getting readers inside the deepest corners of her characters’ minds, which makes their resulting stories even more powerful. As Stephen King fans are well aware, this sort of writing doesn’t always translate well to film/television. Combine that with a mind-bending narrative, and there was plenty of reason to be concerned about how the adaptation would turn out.

After getting a chance to watch all eight episodes, however, I’m happy to report that Shining Girls a wonderfully entertaining series.

We’ll be doing episodic recaps of the series once it premieres later this month. For now, however, we’ll provide a general overview with minimal spoilers. Also, as regular readers know, I have no qualms about comparing a television or film adaptation to its source material. That being said, I’ll endeavor to examine how Shining Girls will appeal to both die-hard book fans and those going into the story with fresh eyes.

Shining Girls (Apple TV+)

Let’s start with what Apple says about the series:

Years after a brutal attack left her in a constantly shifting reality, Kirby Mazrachi learns that a recent murder is linked to her assault. She teams with veteran reporter Dan Velazquez to understand her ever-changing present from her and confront her past from her.

Believe me when I say that this description barely scratches the surface of what’s going to happen. Unfortunately, there’s not much more I can reveal without spoiling parts of the story you should get to watch unfold. What I will say is that there’s a strong supernatural element to the narrative which extends past the main character’s perception.

For those of you who aren’t into urban fantasy (or simply prefer your urban fantasy to remain as grounded as possible), the mystery at the center of Shining Girls is always viewed through a forensic lens. If you enjoyed HBO’s adaptation of Stephen King’s The Outsiderthen this series is going to be right up your alley, as well.

Shining Girls also features a serial killer who requires no supernatural help getting under your skin.

Shining Girls (AppleTV+)

First and foremost, the characters in Shining Girls are fantastic. They constitute the driving force behind the narrative, which is no small feat considering how complex the story gets.

As expected, Elisabeth Moss is superb. It’s already well established that she’s a top-notch actor, but roles like Kirby Mazrachi (tortured soul fighting back against a seemingly insurmountable antagonist) are her bread and butter from her. In this portrayal, however, her character de ella has to balance a potent mix of vulnerability and confusion that’s organically forged into steely resolve — and she absolutely nails it.

The other lead, Dan Velasquez, is not at all how I pictured him while reading the book. That said, I connected with Wagner Moura’s portrayal a bit better. He’s much more overtly dysfunctional, which makes the bond between him and Kirby feel even more genuine. Although their lives are mired in different seas of chaos, they both attempt to navigate through it by trying to solve the same case.

Shining Girls (AppleTV+)

And then there’s Jamie Bell as Harper Curtis, who isn’t in the show’s description, but is probably okay to mention since the character plays such a major role — and often ends up stealing the show.

In most film/television portrayals, serial killers are either blatantly monstrous or absurdly suave. With Harper, his evil from him is apparent from the first frame, but stuffed into a mundane package that could explode at any minute. He’s the person you pass on the street or subway without incident, but he still triggers a primal instinct to be on guard.

For those unlucky enough to end up in Harper’s orbit, his sociopathic tendencies are rooted in jarringly human depravity. Under normal circumstances, his ability to inflict pain / misery would be much more limited. He’s very smart, but not a genius. Physically capable, but not superhuman.

Unfortunately for Kirby and many others, Harper finds a way to feed his selfish/vengeful desires from a much larger plate.

Shining Girls (AppleTV+)

As for supporting characters, there are several standouts.

If you’re a book reader, then don’t feel bad if the appearance of Marcus (Chris Chalk) completely throws you — he wasn’t in the novel. In the series, he aids one of the biggest changes from the source material with a much-needed emotional anchor.

Shining Girls also doesn’t examine nearly as many of Harper’s victims as the book did. While this was somewhat disappointing, it was likely a wise choice for the medium.

Thankfully, the series packs a ton of character development into a smaller number of them — especially Jin Sook (Phillipa Soo). In addition to being threatened by Harper, Jin also helps us navigate many of the show’s bigger questions, both about the plot and the mythology surrounding it.

Shining Girls (AppleTV+)

speaking of the plot, Shining Girls allows its story to play out in a way that’s somehow both deliberate and frantic. Kirby and Dan methodically chip away at a mystery that slices through tendons and time. In the meantime, reality bends and twists around them by rules that take their time to become clear.

By the end of the final episode, Shining Girls provides a conclusion that’s completely satisfying on a narrative level. There are some issues with the path it takes to get there (along with a few unanswered questions), but the ground beneath the audience is much firmer than when they first set foot inside the story.

Along the way, we’re treated to a buffet of powerful scenes. Whether it’s Harper making his move on a victim or Kirby and Dan defending their evidence, the tension consistently ratchets up to a level that demands your full attention.

Shining Girls (AppleTV+)

While I understand how a weekly release schedule can help a show develop more buzz over the long term, Apple really did Shining Girls to disservice. This is a series that would’ve benefitted a great deal from viewers being able to go all the way through and back again to look for things they missed the first time.

There are also some instances where the audience is required to pick up on obscure details. This would be fine if not for the fact that Shining Girls allows some aspects of its mythology to remain extremely vague. It’s fine not knowing the origin and full backstory for every supernatural element, but they still need rules and parameters that work within the story.

that said, Shining Girls doesn’t use the lost method of flying by the seat of its pants, either. There’s definitely a plan and a structure that’s followed from beginning to end. Most of it works, but even the most attentive viewer will be left with some unanswered questions.

Apple did refer to the final episode as the “season finale,” so perhaps they have plans for the story to continue. But even if that ends up being the case, important things happen during this narrative that could’ve used one or two more episodes to explain/address.

Shining Girls (AppleTV+)

Put Down Your Phone

If you try to watch this like it’s your fifth run through office, you’re going to get lost. Even an ADHD-addled Toon Blast addict like me quickly learned that Shining Girls demanded my full and undivided attention — both because of how good it is and so I wouldn’t miss anything.

Don’t Expect a Straight Adaptation of the Book

Shining Girls utilizes many of the best aspects from Beukes’ novel, but a number of its fundamental elements are altered or completely different. Sometimes it’s actually for the better. Other times I wish they’d stuck with the source material. Whatever the case, the series still provides us with a great story.

Don’t let this discourage you from watching, though. Even if you’re a die-hard book fan who eschews any change a film/television makes to their beloved take (which may or may not include me), the core/familiar narrative is still there to enjoy.

Look for Clues

This probably seems like an obvious piece of advice, but you won’t get all the answers with a passive-level viewing. If you want more than what’s being fed to you onscreen, then look beyond the obvious details. Take note of things like what the characters are wearing during certain scenes or when songs you hear were released.

One of my biggest unanswered questions was solved simply by rewinding an episode and using the Shazam app on my phone. Seriously.

Shining Girls (AppleTV+)

When a book is adapted for film or television, it’s virtually guaranteed not to live up to the readers’ hopes/expectations. Thankfully, Shining Girls still does the source material justice, distilling the best parts of the novel while adding its own mind-bending flair to the mix.

Whether book readers enjoy that extra “flair” or not, viewers across the board are likely to enjoy the series a great deal. It’s thrilling, engaging, and incredibly well produced. It also leaves the door open for a second season, although these eight episodes could easily stand on their own.

Shining Girls may not be the exact adaptation of the book I wanted, but it is the supernatural forensic thriller I’ve been missing.

Shining Girls (AppleTV+)

‘Shining Girls’ Season 1

Despite a few narrative missteps, ‘Shining Girls’ is a powerfully entertaining supernatural thriller that does its source material justice.

The cast is superb, particularly the three leads.

Much like the novel, ‘Shining Girls’ drives its mind bending narrative with great character development.

Despite being a supernatural story, the series’ primary mystery is always examined through a forensic lens.

While the series does answer many of its more confounding questions, it allows plenty that affect the narrative to remain frustratingly vague.

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