Shining Vale, Starz’s new horror-comedy created by Catastrophe’s Sharon Horgan and seasoned American comedy writer Jeff Astrof, opens with a message that women are both most likely to experience depression and to be possessed by a demon—and that the symptoms are the same.
Although this data sounds like it comes from the days of diagnosed hysteria and prescribed cocaine for toothaches, it offers a good jumping off point. We already know that women have a long history of being diagnosed—or misdiagnosed—with mental issues. But are we also naturally more predisposed to be meat puppets for otherworldly beings?
The problem with Shining Vale is that it doesn’t even try to argue or excuse away the latter: It doesn’t take long for Courteney Cox’s Pat Phelps to become infatuated with, and then inhabited by, an increasingly sinister spirit known as Rosemary (Mira Sorvino) when she and her family move to a new-to-them house. What’s more, the other members of her family—husband Terry (Greg Kinnear) and kids Gaynor (Gus Birney) and Jake (Dylan Gage)—don’t put up much of a fight when she tells them she’s seeing things. After all, they just packed up their belongings and moved from Brooklyn to the show’s eponymous creepy small town in Connecticut to live in an even creepier 200-year-old house.
The move seems so hasty that the Phelpses presumably didn’t even do a preliminary Wikipedia search on the monstrous property. (Just saying: If I were to buy a rickety old house that’d been on the market for almost three years, was being offered at more than $250K below asking, and came with bathroom fixtures and wallpaper that Betty Draper would have found outdated, I would have had questions beyond simply “where do I sign?”)
Also, with a property this old, of course one of them is bound to see things. It’d be weird if someone didn’t. But the other family members have all got their own problems, as well as work or school. So what if Mom is cracking up a little and starting to wear red lipstick when she used to dress in the all-black uniform of a moody and world-weary New Yorker? If she hadn’t had an affair with the repairman, they wouldn’t have had to move in the first place. Terry isn’t even that alarmed when their marriage counselor ups the dosage of Pat’s pill prescriptions. Did he know the town lore surrounding the house? Did he put Pat there, alone with her pills while he kept his job in the city, as a form of purgatory? Am I experiencing my own paranoia about the safety of fictional characters?
As Pat’s addiction to prescription drugs increases, so do her visions of Sorvino’s smoking, smirking 1950s housewife. But Rosemary’s proven herself to be quite useful. Pat is a writer with writers’ block. Once a literary success for creating a Fifty Shades of Grey-like megahit and for being a party girl of the literati, she’s tapped out after years of mothering and the ease of letting her finance-guy husband be the breadwinner. Like anyone who works from home, she likes to complain about how she can’t get any work done and also search for distractions (be it the repair guy or a spirit) instead of actually getting to the assignment she has a contract to complete. Suggestions that she write at a coffee shop in town or join a book club and try to make friends with the locals are quickly dismissed, giving her even more excuses to be alone in the house with her thoughts and visions. But Rosemary can help with that: If Pat lets her in just for a little bit, she will offer up quite a page-turner. Is it her life story she’s sharing? Is it the story of someone else who was also taken down by the house? Maybe it’s a combination of both?
The plot and dialogue are enjoyable, even in the former’s predictability. As more clues become unraveled and more unique townsfolk show up—hi to Parvesh Cheena’s Laird—it just becomes increasingly odd that no one blurts out “What’s it like living in that haunted house?” or “Hey, you know what happened there, right?” Is everyone in town under the house’s spell? Are they pod people? What happened to the family who owned the house three years ago? Am I searching for ways to add to the mystery?
Shining Vale also comes with solid writing and directing. In addition to Astrof, the writers’ room includes horror buffs like Jill Blotevogel (Scream: The TV Series), while Penny Dreadful and The Handmaid’s Tale’s Dearbhla Walsh directed the first episode. Cox, whose most famous film work is the horror franchise Scream, leans into building a worn-out Pat who aches to feel something but quickly embraces the Stockholm syndrome of her new suburban prison. But it’s unclear what attracted Kinnear’s Terry to Pat in the first place—perhaps she represented freedom from his 9-to-5 desk job?—or how his buttoned-up demeanor fits in with a family in which the daughter’s proudly promiscuous, the son’s obsessed with VR, and all four of them (quite amusingly) curse like sailors. However, Terry’s continued defense of his wife and loyalty to her after all she’s put him through proves chivalry isn’t the thing in the house that’s dead.
Presumably on purpose, there is zero reference to Stephen King’s The Shining in this series, unless you count the title as an homage to literature’s most famous story of how writer’s block coupled with solitude could make you homicidal. OK, at one point, Pat does take an ax to the hall closet. She’s not going to chop up her family, but she does find a secret basement tiki bar that one would think would have been part of the seller’s blueprints (and if not, why don’t the Phelpses call the realtor and ask?).
But the show struggles to hold up to the first part of its horror-comedy descriptor. Those hoping for a bloody shockfest will be disappointed by Shining Vale. Aside from some jumpscares and suspenseful music, the seven episodes made available for review were not particularly scary (and I say this as someone who cannot watch horror movies without spending most of the time contemplating the crumbs on my shirt). And while summoning a spirit from the days of “mother’s little helpers” might be too on the nose, it’s a good allegory and reminder of society’s history of silencing women. It’s just that because we know Pat isn’t crazy and there is, in fact, some supernatural sensations afoot, the show loses an opportunity to be a more fun and heightened psychological thriller. And you know what they say about all work and no play…
Shining Vale premieres Sunday, March 6 at 10 p.m. on Starz
Whitney Friedlander is an entertainment journalist with, what some may argue, an unhealthy love affair with her TV. A former staff writer at both Los Angeles Times and Variety, her writing has also appeared in Cosmopolitan, Vulture, The Washington Post and others. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband, son, daughter, and very photogenic cat.
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