At one point, the producers of Sharp Objects had planned to adapt Gillian Flynn’s 2006 debut novel as a feature film, and the eight-episode TV-series version premiering Sunday on HBO (seven episodes of which were available for review) makes that initial instinct seem like the smart one. The story of a crime reporter returning to her Missouri hometown to investigate the murders of two teenage girls drags tediously over the course of its initial episodes, only gaining momentum as it gets closer to its conclusion. The lead performance by Amy Adams as troubled reporter Camille Preaker keeps the show mostly watchable, but it’s a chore to get through the dead-end subplots and the slow trickle of narrative developments that surround her.
Camille herself is a bit of a prestige-TV cliché, although Adams makes her into more than the sum of her flaws. After escaping her overbearing and possibly abusive mother Adora (Patricia Clarkson) and moving from the small town of Wind Gap to the comparatively big city of St. Louis, Camille is still a serious alcoholic, almost never seen without a “water bottle” full of vodka in her hand, and she’s coming off a stint in rehab for long-term issues with self-harm. So sending her back to the source of all her trauma is probably not as helpful as her avuncular editor (Miguel Sandoval) seems to think it is.
Once in Wind Gap, Camille moves back into her childhood bedroom in her wealthy family’s sprawling estate, despite her antagonistic relationship with her mother, and she connects with Amma (Eliza Scanlen), the teenage half-sister she never really knew. Camille had another younger half-sister, Marian, when she was a kid, but Marian died young of an unspecified illness, a tragedy that has haunted Camille and her family ever since.
Amma is a bit of a contradiction, acting sweet and childlike (playing with dolls, wearing modest sundresses) at home with Adora, and then drinking, smoking and flirting when she’s out with her friends. She both idolizes and antagonizes Camille, who isn’t sure whether her sister needs saving or stopping.
When Camille first gets to town, one young girl has been murdered and a second is missing, but the body of the second girl soon turns up, gruesomely mutilated and displayed in a manner common to TV serial killers. Naturally, nearly everyone is a suspect, especially the father of the first victim and the brother of the second, and Camille hooks up with Richard Willis (Chris Messina), a detective from Kansas City who’s been brought in to help with the investigation and is the only other person in town not caught up in the local gossip mill.