Too many murder mysteries on TV are so attentive to plot — the red herrings, the foreshadowing, the cliffhangers — that they short-shrift character depth. They do provide a final rush of denouement, when everything ties up and you learn whodunit, but still they’re merely live-action jigsaw puzzles, flat, cardboard, and inert.
On the other hand, “Sharp Objects,” HBO’s wonderfully addictive eight-episode murder mystery based on the Gillian Flynn novel, is predominantly about character; the murder mystery is there to drive the captivating psychological profiles of the main characters, in particular Amy Adams as Camille, Patricia Clarkson as Adora, her mother, and Eliza Scanlen as her half-sister, Amma. The women reveal themselves — their contradictions, their secrets, their desires — as they’re pulled deeper into the case of one missing girl and one murdered girl in their small Missouri town. The more we learn about the crimes and their perverse details, the more we discover about the old wounds plaguing Camille’s family.
So, to answer the question “Sharp Objects” tacitly raises: Yes, it is as good as HBO’s other female-driven murder mystery, “Big Little Lies,” not least of all because both shows were brilliantly directed by Jean-Marc Vallee. Working with a smart script by, among others, Flynn and showrunner Marti Noxon, Vallee has an alluring and cinematic style that, in “Sharp Objects,” lapses into brief squalls of confusion — unexplained flashes of imagery from Camille’s deeply buried past. The squalls don’t disrupt the logic or momentum of the story, but they add a haunting, slightly disorienting tone along with bits of clues. Camille’s suppressed memories — some involving the death of her younger sister many years earlier — emerge in tiny blasts, despite her dogged resistance, despite her years of drinking to forget them.
Camille is a newspaper reporter in St. Louis who thinks she’s fooling her colleagues by putting vodka in her water bottles. Her editor, Frank (Miguel Sandoval), is a paternal figure who sends her back to her hometown, Wind Gap, to cover the murders. He’s hoping that, with her inside knowledge of the town, she’ll write strong stories filled with local color. He’s also hoping, even more passionately, that somehow Camille will address her festering problems, even while, like us, he doesn’t quite know what they are. “You can’t fix her,” Frank’s wife warns him, but perhaps he can help her fix herself. So before long in the premiere, Sunday at 9 p.m., Camille is ensconced in her mother’s spacious home, with her oddly retiring stepfather, Alan (Henry Czerny), and the coy Amma. Like Elisabeth Moss’s similar character in the first season of “Top of the Lake,” she is exactly where she doesn’t want to be.
It’s easy to see, without knowing a thing about Camille’s past, why she loathes Wind Gap. For one thing, the town is a stagnant gossip mill whose tone, as one character puts it, is “sugary passive aggression.” It’s a place where the oft-muttered nicety “Bless your heart” actually means “Drop dead.” And then Adora is a horror, a prima donna who has a lot of power among the local bigwigs and a barely hidden contempt for Camille. Clarkson is remarkable in the role, as Adora tries to control everyone, and generally succeeds — except when it comes to Camille. Adora smugly thinks Amma is safely under her thumb, but we quickly see that the young beauty — played with a Lolita-like charge by Scanlen — is a secret rebel, sneaking out of the house with her mean-girl friends.
Adams carries the limited series beautifully with a quiet but jagged intensity. If the troubled, dogged reporter is a familiar character, it feels fresh and unpredictable in her hands. She makes the many contradictory sides of Camille sit together naturally, as she aggressively insinuates herself into the lives of the victims’ families and then sits alone in an almost catatonic state. There may be a romantic spark afoot, as she and a detective, played by Chris Messina, compete for information — but it’s hard to root for them when Camille is so broken, a piece of shattered glass. There are many sharp objects in play in this intelligent, entertaining series, and a few sharp-edged people, too.
Starring: Amy Adams, Patricia Clarkson, Chris Messina, Matt Craven, Eliza Scanlen, Henry Czerny, Elizabeth Perkins, Taylor John Smith, Sydney Sweeney, Miguel Sandoval
On: HBO, Sunday at 9 p.m.Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.