The role of “promising reporter turned amateur sleuth tracking a time-traveling serial killer as she herself becomes unstuck in time” sounds far too specific to be in any actor’s wheelhouse, even one as talented as Elisabeth Moss. Yet that is the immediate takeaway from the Apple TV+ limited series “Shining Girls”: That whether through the original novel by Lauren Beukes, showrunner Silka Luisa, or actor/director/executive producer Moss, the character of Kirby Mazrachi is a perfect fit for this particular star.
Maybe, at times, too perfect. As Kirby fights her way through fantastically challenging circumstances and the dismissals of so many people around her, it’s hard not to think of Moss’ exceptional work in the recent “Invisible Man” remake — a story about toxic-male violence that had the advantage of ruthless streamlining. The eight-episode “Shining Girls” has more time to build dread — and more time to trip over its uneven pacing.
Moss’s Kirby is an archivist at the Chicago Sun-Times in 1992, where she has started over with a new identity following a brutal attack she survived years earlier. Her attacker has left other victims across the Chicago area, but so much time has lapsed between them that any connections can seem tenuous, if not downright impossible. When troubled reporter Dan Velazquez (Wagner Moura) investigates a more recent murder with similarities to Kirby’s case, Dan and Kirby team up, digging into past victims. They eventually cross paths with Jinny (Phillipa Soo), a local scientist who could be targeted in the future.
The identify of the killer isn’t a mystery to the audience: It’s Harper (Jamie Bell), an unnerving man who immediately telegraphs his willingness to quietly overstep boundaries, quickly turning undertones of menace into overtones. This is clear in his first scene in the series, which he shares with Kirby — decades before he attacks her, when she is just a child. Harper keeps popping up at different intervals, never appearing to visibly age, before disappearing again; clearly, he’s in defiance of some usual laws of time and physics. The “what” and “how” are gradually revealed — a later episode of the series goes deeper on his specific origins — though some aspects of the story are left ambiguous or unexplained.
That’s not a bad thing, but it’s not always productive in determining what, exactly, “Shining Girls” is doing with its mixture of character-based drama, nuanced exploration of a sensitive and subjective mental state, and page-turning exploitation. It dips into all three areas with skill. For starters, there are plenty of deeply creepy scenes where Harper lurks in the background, just out of sight, calmly assessing the women he will prey on. And not all of the serial-killer material is quite so familiar. One major plot point becomes a strong psychological metaphor: As the timeline of events is altered, the details of Kirby’s life keep shifting beneath her, with the rest of the world unaware of these changes. It’s a powerful evocation of the idea that a traumatic event can leave someone feeling like they’re living a different form of reality that never quite solidifies, subject to the cruel whims of memory and experience. It’s also, from a practical standpoint, a hell of a neat narrative trick, watching someone attempt to catch a killer while holding on to their own sense of self.
So why isn’t “Shining Girls,” well, more satisfying? Part of it is the flimsiness of the supporting characters. Kirby’s mom (Amy Brennaman) and Dan’s young son (Julian Obradors) wind up feeling like plot accessories after the fact, a byproduct of how the show introduces characters slowly, then hastily wraps things up in its eventful final two episodes. Even Soo’s engaging Jinny seems to spend more time strategically retreading certain key scenes rather than developing as an individual, while Moura’s Dan has a well-worn cop-style backstory (dedicated to his job but nearly swallowed by his demons) ported into his journalist character.
This leaves Moss, excellent as always, and her ongoing duel with Bell. These two marquee actors, along with steady direction from “Breaking Bad” and “X-Files” veteran Michelle MacLaren; Moss’ ‘Handmaid Tale’ collaborator Daina Reid; and Moss herself keep the show suspenseful and, especially in the back half of the season, taut. What it ultimately (and surprisingly) lacks is a sense of sustained emotional heft — that there’s something more substantial amidst all of the gruesome (if tastefully depicted) murders and head-spinning, sometimes confusing time-travel mechanics. These moments aren’t completely lacking. They just appear and then quickly recede, like some of the details Kirby is forced to scribble down before they disappear again.
The first three episodes of “Shining Girls” are now streaming on Apple TV+, with new episodes rolling out weekly.