In the past couple of years, TV shows have started to portray mental health — specifically trauma and its psychological and physical repercussions — in more authentic ways than before. Comedies like The CW’s “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” and Netflix’s “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” present enlightening and thought-provoking depictions of trauma through a humorous lens without resorting to superficial stereotyping. TV dramas, however, still seem to be fixated on using trauma as a catalyst for suspense.
Crime procedurals such as “Law & Order: SVU” often address the trauma of every episode’s victim through their harrowing testimonies, treating their painful experiences with admirable albeit somewhat surface-level reverence. More controversially, Netflix’s “13 Reasons Why” tackles trauma through the protagonist Hannah (Katherine Langford, “Love, Simon”), a high schooler whose tragic suicide is not only displayed in full, but the circumstances of which are serialized through 13 cassette tapes made for all the people “responsible” for her death. Though its attempts to spotlight the detriments of trauma and bullying are well-intentioned and occasionally nuanced, watching “13 Reasons Why” can be almost too violent and melodramatic to stomach, especially with one supporting character’s unexpected (and unnecessarily brutal) rape in the season two finale.
How, then, can a show attain an in-depth illustration of trauma without dumbing it down or glamorizing it? In the case of HBO’s slow-burning murder mystery miniseries “Sharp Objects,” the portrayal of trauma is transfixing and meticulous, acting as both a recurring theme and as a heavily stylized aesthetic. Trauma itself becomes a character rather than a mere plot device.
Based on the novel by “Gone Girl” author Gillian Flynn (who also wrote a few episodes for the series), “Sharp Objects” follows hard-drinking journalist Camille Preaker (Amy Adams, “Arrival”) as she returns to her hometown of Wind Gap, Mo. to investigate the murder of two young girls. As Camille becomes more invested in the crime, the sparse details surrounding her history of self-harming and troubled relationship with her domineering mother Adora (Patricia Clarkson, “Delirium”) gradually come to light.
Rather than exploit Camille’s trauma for the sake of spectacle, “Sharp Objects” deftly underscores Camille’s fraught emotional interiority through the show’s disjointed editing, out-of-context flashbacks and disorienting sound design. These techniques certainly elicit a build-up of dread and terror. But more importantly, they are not made to entertain; they deliberately immerse the viewer into Camille’s fragile state of mind.
Each scene in which Camille finds a clue to the crime, spots a curious object or recognizes a familiar face, she’s transported into her adolescence, her memories of which are paradoxically lucid and spotty. During some of these moments, the atmospheric sound from the scene set in the present — usually the hypnotic noise of summertime crickets or heavy breathing — remains, while the sound from the scene set in the past is erased completely. The vivid parallels between Camille’s fractured past and equally unstable present signify her inability to reconcile the unresolved issues of her childhood (and even adulthood) trauma. It’s a smart, riveting and haunting way of showing that trauma is a very real, inescapable wound, an eternal, ominous specter that can only be vanquished once it’s faced head-on.
This, of course, isn’t the first time this kind of depiction has been executed. “Sharp Objects” director Jean-Marc Vallée (“Demolition”) is known for incorporating a similar evocation of trauma in his other acclaimed HBO miniseries “Big Little Lies,” wherein young mother Jane Chapman (Shailene Woodley, “Adrift”) experiences a slew of intense flashbacks to her rape a few years before moving to the seaside town of Monterey, Calif. Similar to “Sharp Objects,” “Big Little Lies” focused less on how Jane’s trauma and emotional troubles could be used as a marker for tension and more on how it informed who she was as a character.
Netflix’s “Jessica Jones” also gives a notable take on trauma, wherein the titular superhero (Krysten Ritter, “Marvel’s The Defenders”) uses her superhuman strength (both physical and emotional) to combat her inner turmoil from witnessing the death of her family, as well as the evil forces that threaten to destroy her and the world at large. Though “Jessica Jones” doesn’t shy away from explicit violence, it manages to remain grounded by emphasizing Jessica’s struggles and eventual triumph over controlling her PTSD.
A topic like trauma is as difficult to talk about in real life as it is difficult to translate on screen. Luckily, “Sharp Objects” and programs like it operate as complex models for how trauma can be properly discussed and dissected on TV — and perhaps they can also further the conversation of coming to terms with the hard truths that dictate our own inner lives.