In the Horror Comedy ‘Shining Vale,’ Nothing’s Scarier Than Patriarchy
WARNING: Contains spoilers for Season One of Shining Vale.
As a TV writer, Sharon Horgan has spent her career creating — and sometimes playing — complicated women comedically navigating their way through various horrors. In Catastrophe, Horgan plays (a fictional) Sharon who unexpectedly finds herself pregnant by an American visitor to London, someone she never expected to see after their week-long tryst; bravely, she dares to try (gasp!) commitment and parenthood with him. In Divorce, Frances (Sarah Jessica Parker) must decide whether ending a dead marriage is preferable to (shriek!) starting life over as a middle-aged woman. In Bad Sisters, Horgan plays Eva, the eldest of five sisters who engage in a series of cover-ups when their abusive and generally loathsome brother-in-law suddenly dies under suspicious circumstances. But not until Shining Vale has Horgan made the horrors of aging as a woman in patriarchy quite so literal, or so visceral.
Shining Vale — which Horgan co-created with Jeff Astrof (Trial & Error, Angie Tribeca), and which premiered on Starz last spring — is the story of the Phelps family, who relocate from Brooklyn to the titular Connecticut town in the series premiere. Pat (Courteney Cox) has been unfaithful, so her husband Terry (Greg Kinnear) decides they need a fresh start, and has leveraged all their finances to buy a gigantic mansion. Getting the place for $200K under asking seems like it must come with a catch, and it does: A woman named Rosemary (Mira Sorvino) died by suicide on the property, and soon starts appearing to Pat to tell her story of repression and misery as a 1950s housewife and mother. Rosemary also does what she can to try to improve Pat’s life: using Pat’s body to prepare a casserole; to work on Pat’s extremely overdue follow-up to the breakout erotic novel she wrote before the births of her children (Gus Birney and Dylan Gage); and to have sex with Terry, which gives Rosemary the mind-blowing new experience of… being on top.
In case the show title didn’t tip you, the story becomes a gender-flipped take on The Shining: Pat holes up in a house big enough for the kids to mistake it for a hotel, struggles with writer’s block and takes breaks at a bar on-site (Rosemary leads her to a vintage tiki bar in the boarded-up basement); and eventually, Pat takes the ax Terry has been using to chop a mountain of firewood, and puts it to unconventional use. Title cards at the top of the series premiere tell us that women are more prone to both depression and demon possession, and that both afflictions have the same symptoms. As the first season ends with Pat being committed to the local psychiatric hospital on her daughter Gaynor’s orders, we still don’t know exactly what is troubling Pat or how it could possibly be remediated. Between the title card and the finale, characters get dismembered, bludgeoned, impaled and subjected to an extremely unpleasant dinner party.
Without running afoul of Starz’s “do not reveal” notes, I can (very carefully) say that Season Two — fittingly premiering Friday, October 13th — riffs on a wider range of horror references as it continues exploring Pat’s extraordinarily bad midlife crisis. Every new person who enters her orbit is immediately suspect. Every other member of the family is facing entirely new problems, exactly when their capacity to deal with them is at an all-time low. Pat’s career success may be a poisoned chalice. And, as in a nightmare, the haunted house keeps revealing ever more creepy corners. Throughout, the show’s biggest questions keep reverberating. Is there any phase of life when a woman’s concerns, ambitions or desires will be taken seriously? How does mental illness move through generations of a family, and can it be “cured”? And how far is too far for a woman to go to preserve her youth?
The issue of youth is one that already animated another sitcom Cox starred in: Cougar Town, which ran for six seasons on ABC and TBS. Famously, the show’s creator, Bill Lawrence, attempted to change the title after the show evolved into an ensemble hangout comedy rather than a single-gag affair about divorced mother Jules (Cox) dating younger himbos, but on rewatch, those Season One jokes about Jules’s ongoing physical collapse are tough to take. Unsurprisingly, Vale — co-created by a woman, mostly written by women, and per IMDb, entirely directed by women — has a more nuanced take on women aging. Pat is apologetic about her cheating, but not about having a sex life, despite Gaynor’s continual sniping about how embarrassing it is. (Pat gives as good as she gets, joking when she hears that Gaynor joined the school’s Chastity Club that she should probably also join Time Travel Club.)
Having grown up in public pretty much since Bruce Springsteen pulled her up on stage in the “Dancing in the Dark” video around four decades ago, Cox has been forced to have a take on, well, what women’s faces do, and what can be done to them, and knowing this fact about Cox’s real life maps onto Pat, in the second season, in bold and unexpected ways. The show’s interest in aging also goes beyond the physical, as Pat sees her publisher give away her prime book release slot to a twentysomething YA author who got in trouble for sneaking Pat’s first novel into her middle school. Pat’s creative process takes on a different form in the new season, but remains in conflict with her often inconsiderate family members’ demands on her — though, to be fair to them, Pat is also open about her hateful love for them. Like I said: it’s complicated.
That the show hasn’t always seemed particularly interested in Terry feels appropriate for a show about mental illness in women and/or women being preyed upon by malevolent supernatural forces they don’t understand. But this has sometimes been a waste of a perfectly good Greg Kinnear, who seems game for whatever he’s asked to do, from partial nudity to full slapstick. Terry’s relative centrality evolves over the course of the new season, and if there is a third, it seems likely that he’ll get some juicy material to work with.
By the end of Cox’s 10 years at Friends, she probably could have played the compulsively tidy Monica in her sleep. That’s why it’s such a thrill to see her, as the ever-messy Pat, hurtling through a series of nightmares that let her show off more of what she can actually do, taking possession of Cox in ways Monica never demanded.