In the second season of Netflix’s Russian Doll, the show’s time traveling heroine Nadia tells a friend, “The only reason to go into the past is to change shit, alright? I mean, haven’t you ever seen a movie?” Nadia is onto something: pop culturally, characters who travel in time tend to make things better, or at least try to. That’s the theme of Russian Doll, and that’s the theme of the second season of Amazon’s animated sci-fi drama Undone, which also features a woman whose time-bending abilities can be mistaken for mental illness.
Sometimes, though, time travel is less wish fulfillment than nightmare. On the same day that Undone returns, Apple TV+ is premiering Shining Girls, a serial killer story with a novel-ish(*) twist: the killer travels in time, and our heroine seems powerless to prevent him from hurting her in any moment of her life. Between the high-concept premise, some great direction from Breaking Bad alum Michelle MacLaren, and the usual superhuman intensity from Elisabeth Moss in the lead role, the series transcends a lot of the usual clichés and pitfalls associated with serial killers terrorizing women. It’s a gripping thriller, albeit one that can be deliberately hard to follow.
(*) It’s not the first serial killer/time travel mashup. Most famously, Nicholas Meyer’s 1979 film Time After Time saw H.G. Wells’ time machine stolen by Jack the Ripper, who decides to continue his murder spree in modern-day San Francisco. In the case of Shining Girls, the premise comes from the novel of the same name by Lauren Beukes, adapted by Silka Luisa.
The bulk of the story takes place in early-Nineties Chicago. Moss is Kirby, an archivist at the Chicago Sun-Times in the good old days for big-city newspapers. Years earlier, she barely survived a brutal attack by an unknown assailant, and still hasn’t quite put back the pieces of her life — in part because it seems the pieces keep changing at random. She might come home to discover she suddenly owns a cat named Grendel, and when she returns to the apartment a little later, Grendel will now be a dog. Her mother, Rachel (Amy Brenneman), is always a failed rock star, but a hard-partying arrested development case in one moment, and long-sober in the next, without warning. Kirby has begun to carry a journal with her just to keep all the changes straight in her head. It doesn’t help.
It takes a while for the show to explain how and why Kirby’s reality keeps changing, but it is more upfront about who is responsible: Harper (Jamie Bell), a man from another age who gets his kicks out of preying on women across eras. And when a dead body shows up in Kirby’s present with wounds consistent with the ones that nearly killed her, she joins forces with Dan (Wagner Moura from Narcos), a once-great reporter who has drunk himself into professional irrelevance, to figure out the connection. But what they see as a fairly straightforward investigation — “A survivor hunting a serial killer — that’s your story,” insists their editor, Abby (Erika Alexander) — proves horribly complicated due to Harper’s mysterious powers. As Jin-Sook (Phillipa Soo), an astronomer who is one of Harper’s future victims — or maybe one of his past ones? — explains, “Just because something hasn’t happened yet, doesn’t mean it won’t.”
Yes, it is confusing. But that is something of the point of the thing. We are mostly inside Kirby’s head — and there can be few places in all of television more terrifying to exist than inside the head of an abused, vengeful character played by Elisabeth Moss, especially when paired with a director as gifted at generating suspense as MacLaren (see here). And even after she begins to get an inkling of what Harper is really doing, she can’t begin to untangle the physics and metaphysics of it. The convoluted nature of the plot for the most part feels like part of Shining Girls‘ emotional design.
If anything, the show could probably stand to exist even more in Kirby’s point of view. We see Harper in nonlinear action well before Kirby and Dan get wise to his methods, which makes them feel too far behind the curve, especially in some of the season’s middle chapters. But even when the plot begins to drag, Shining Girls is capable of trotting out a riveting set piece, like Kirby and Harper brawling in a store whose details keep changing around them with each punch and insult thrown.
Apple TV+ is on a real heater right now. Severance and Pachinko both have good arguments for the title of the best show of 2022 so far, and last year’s champ, For All Mankind, will be back in June. Couple that with other recent charmers like The Afterparty and Slow Horses, plus ongoing successes like Ted Lasso and Mythic Quest, and the streamer’s quality-over-quantity approach has been paying real dividends, even if not everything works. This is another terrific show. Just don’t expect to come out of it being able to explain a lot of what happens. Kirby’s story is all that matters, and that plays out as well as you would expect when you pair a great actor with a great director and potent material.
The first three episodes of Shining Girls premiere April 29 on Apple TV+, with additional episodes streaming weekly. I’ve seen all eight.