‘Shining Vale’: As an author bonding with a dead housewife, Courteney Cox is the best part of uneven horror comedy
Not quite a parody, the Starz series is too ridiculous to create any true dramatic tension.
Fresh off her triumphant encore as Gale Weathers in “Scream,” Courteney Cox returns to the horror/comedy genre in the Starz limited series “Shining Vale,” and she delivers a knockout performance as The Woman in the Attic Who Takes Too Many Pills and Is Haunted by a Horny Ghost.
In fact, Cox’s work turns out to be the best thing in this uneven and tonally inconsistent series, as the intriguing premise doesn’t totally pan out. “Shining Vale” never fully commits to being a full-out parody a la the recent Kristen Bell-starring Netflix series “The Woman in the House Across the Street from the Girl in the Window,” but is just too ridiculous to create any true dramatic tension beyond the usual horror movie jump-scare moments. (Somehow, amidst all the wildly over-the-top hijinks in “The Woman …” we actually found ourselves invested in seeing the mystery solved.)
Meet the Phelps family, who on the surface are straight out of the “Ozark” playbook. Terry (Greg Kinnear) is the perpetually upbeat, passive-aggressive family cheerleader; Pat (Cox) is his depressed and troubled wife, who recently had an affair; teenage daughter Gaynor (Gus Birney) is a tall, blonde, trouble-seeking rebel who says awful things to her parents, and younger son Jake (Dylan Gage) is disengaged from the family and connects with other humans almost exclusively through his VR set.
The series premieres with two episodes available Sunday on demand and at 9:20 p.m. Sunday on the Starz TV channel.
Seeking to escape Pat’s scandalous fling with the family’s handyman and hoping for a fresh start, the family moves from Brooklyn to an enormous and creaky manor in the outwardly idyllic town of Shining Vale, Connecticut. (Hey, wait a minute: “The Shining” was set in Colorado, and Vail is a town in Colorado! This will be the first of many, many references to the Stanley Kubrick classic.)
Pat is a writer, but it’s been 17 years since she last published anything of note: a notoriously salacious, “Fifty Shades of Grey” type bestseller titled “Cressida Unbound.” which is routinely labeled as nothing but glossy porn, much to the frustration of Pat, who proclaims, “It’s not porn. It’s a woman’s empowerment story about a sex addict that makes bad choices.” (Hubby Terry is quick to point out it’s FICTION, pure FICTION.) Labels aside, Pat needs to deliver a new book, like yesterday, lest she be dropped by her loyal but increasingly impatient agent, Kam (a wonderfully droll Merrin Dungey).
As for hubby Terry … his whole personality can be summed up by a line he delivers to the real estate agent (Sherilyn Fenn) when he spots an upright piano in the house: “I used to tickle the ivories at college, I went to Penn.” How fast would you try to escape THIS guy at a cocktail party?
As Terry spends long days at the office back in the city while Gaynor sets her sights on deflowering the handsome boy next door and Jake plays Minecraft, the house begins to take its hold on Pat. She hears disturbing noises in the middle of the night, she sees haunting images through the window — and it’s not long before she meets Rosemary (Mira Sorvino), a 1950s housewife who once lived, and died, in this house.
That’s when things get really weird. Pat’s criminally incompetent therapist (James M. Connor) keeps upping her doses of Clonazepam, while Terry brushes off Pat’s increasingly unhinged behavior and throws himself into projects such as sprucing up the old tiki bar he’s discovered in the house and building a fence around the property. “Shining Vale” indulges in deliberately overwrought devices, including a steady supply of graphics telling us it’s MONDAY or WEDNESDAY or FRIDAY for no real reason, garishly lit flashback sequences giving us horrific glimpses of bloody violence and pounding musical cues.
Pat and Rosemary actually form a bond of sorts, as Rosemary smashes Pat’s writer’s block and reinvigorates Pat’s sexual connection to her husband, and we’ll just leave it at that. At first, Pat wants nothing more than to leave this house and rid herself of this ghost, or hallucination, or whatever it is; then it comes to a point where she almost can’t live without Rosemary.
Courteney Cox and Mira Sorvino are terrific together, even as we’re not sure if Pat should embrace Rosemary as her conduit to professional success and personal happiness, or check herself into an institution, stop with the overmedicating and get legitimate help. One can’t help but feel uneasy about the mixture of flat-out comedy and seemingly deadly serious and dark depictions of mental illness. (The joke about “The Bell Jar” and Sylvia Plath doesn’t help.)
One moment, “Shining Vale” plays like a supernatural comedy; the next, it seems to be striving for sincere commentary about how the world doesn’t always view mental illness in women the same as mental illness in men. (How many times do we hear a man was behaving in a “hysterical” manner?) We get the occasional sharp line of dialogue, and Cox is eminently watchable throughout, but “Shining Vale” never quite realizes its comedic or dramatic potential.