2:00 pm EDT, August 27, 2018

‘Sharp Objects’ postmortem: A show that never stopped challenging its audience

Until the last frame of its final episode, Sharp Objects never stopped challenging viewers to engage with television in a manner far different than what they may be accustomed to, making it one of the best shows of the year.

Most of us, whether we like to admit it or not, go into the movie theater or turn on the TV with a certain set of expectations of what we want to see. These expectations influence how we watch and interpret the stories told on the screen. At this point in history, the lexicon of film and television is so large that we’ve amassed a huge catalogue of preconceived notions that dictate and impact whether or not we’ll enjoy the very thing we’ve decided to watch. When a work of fiction works against these more formal modes of storytelling, the results tend to range anywhere from mildly off-putting to very divisive.

Over the course of its limited eight-episode run, Sharp Objects delivered one of the most contentious and stimulating works of fiction seen this year. Billed as one of the summer’s must watch series, many tuned into HBO’s adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s novel expecting a typical crime drama about the murder of young girls in a rural, southern town. But there’s nothing typical about Sharp Objects.

Let’s get one thing on the table: audiences tune in for murder. Crime procedurals and murder mysteries are popular because of the sense of satisfaction they deliver; following a case from start to finish and seeing justice served appeals to the desire for, or rather, expectations of a open and shut, familiar narrative. Sharp Objects bucks off any sense of familiarity, delivering an untraditional and challenging work that focuses on the repercussions of violence and trauma over time.

It’s no wonder then that Sharp Objects has been criticized for its unconventional take on such a familiar genre. Sharp Objects has been nitpicked for its pacing, its depictions of journalism and mental health, its focus on its protagonist’s emotional journey over the actual murder investigation, and its hazy and ambiguous editing. The most frequent critique lazily lobbed in the show’s direction is that it puts style over substance.

The phrase “style over substance” has long been used as an easy critique to disapprove of work that defies familiar conventions. In the case of Sharp Objects, this critique misses the whole point of the show. Unlike most TV, a medium that leans heavily on plot to drive its episodic structure, Sharp Objects set out to be more than just what it’s about. In other words, the show uses style as substance.

Over the course of eight episodes, Sharp Objects demonstrated a refreshing apathy for delivering a precisely plotted murder mystery, instead focusing on how it can best use the visual medium to convey Camille’s struggles with her family and her trauma, to interrogate the inextricable link between crime and community, and demonstrate how memory alters how understanding of the present.

As an example, look to the unique memory sequences that have become a staple of the show’s style. These moments, edited with a precise blade, flash through discordant and confusing images that are accompanied by varying degrees of context. Critics of the show’s style have cited these montages as needlessly confusing, claiming they obscure more than they reveal about the show.

This criticism overlooks how obfuscation operates as a tool for revealing more about Camille and the crimes she is investigating. Trauma, the experience of enduring, remembering, and reliving it, is not easy and the show refuses to pretend otherwise. These memory montages reveal gruesome, unsettling, or confounding imagery that help contextualize Camille’s state of mind — not the investigation, not the crimes themselves, but Camille. While that may be a tough pill to swallow for those viewers looking for a traditional crime procedural, it’s a far more impressive to see a show challenging its viewers to engage with its visual text rather than feeding them another narrative-based and dialogue-heavy story.

Of course, it doesn’t help that lots of people went into Sharp Objects expecting another Big Little Lies. Both series are book adaptations directed solely by Jean-Marc Vallee, so it’s not entirely an unfair comparison. However, the two shows could not be more different. Whereas Big Little Lies follows details all the events precipitating one major event, Sharp Objects is focused on the reverberations of an event from decades before. Whereas Big Little Lies is heavy on dialogue and concrete narrative beats, Sharp Objects is far more fluid, blending the lines between past and present, tangible and intangible, truth and perception.

There’s a satisfying stretch in the final act of Sharp Objects that wraps things up nicely, seemingly closing the loop on the show’s portrayal of the shared trauma of the Preaker women. This, of course, feels odd since so much of the show resisted giving the audience what it wanted. It’s only natural that the last scene of the show would reveal a final piece of the puzzle, finally allowing the shoe to drop in a way that upends the satisfying ending and underscores the real thesis of the show: that some trauma cannot be contained or neutralized.

The last scene of the show and the post-credits scene (if you stuck around for it) remind us that Sharp Objects refused to be the show it was expected to be; it stayed true to itself, something far different and more difficult than anyone thought it would be. Sharp Objects is a Trojan horse — a TV show disguised as a crime procedural that ultimately delivers unto its audience a far more complex and challenging story of trauma.

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