Shining Vale might, at first, make you question Tolstoy’s famous claim that “each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” In the new Starz horror comedy, which premieres on March 6, an emasculated dad moves his unfaithful wife and their two teen children out of Brooklyn and into a huge, old, dimly lit house in quaint Shining Vale, Conn. You have surely seen versions of these characters and this setup before. Terry (Greg Kinnear) hopes the change of scenery will bring Pat (Courteney Cox) back to him; Pat, the author of a steamy best-seller that sounds like a Fear of Flying for the Fifty Shades era, hopes it will inspire her to finish the long-delayed sequel. Unfortunately, the place might already be harboring a ghost or two.
Haunted-house shows have been popping up everywhere in the past decade, from the debut season of FX’s American Horror Story to the British sitcom Ghosts and its hit stateside remake on CBS. More often than not—and particularly in Mike Flanagan’s popular Netflix Haunting duology—the spectral infestation symbolizes the psychological woes of the house’s current human occupants. Ghost children become playmates for isolated kids. Ghost servants keep us mindful of the class politics of spooky mansions.
Into that overcrowded attic of imagery, Shining Vale throws the archetypal blocked writer (is the show’s title supposed to echo The Shining?) and hints of small-town housewife horror à la The Stepford Wives. The town’s anachronistically domestic women—one of whom introduces herself as “Mrs. Stephen Edwards”—seem scandalized by Pat and her book. Terry, a corporate drone who still brags about his Ivy League pedigree, tries on various macho archetypes: the decisive patriarch, the rugged woodsman, the breadwinner who commutes home every night to a docile wife. A nerdy son, Jake (Dylan Gage), who’s addicted to his AR headset and a rebellious, scantily clad daughter, Gaynor (Gus Birney), add more tropes to the pile.
The show doesn’t have as much to add to contemporary conversations around family, creativity, gender, or mental illness as it seems to think. Even if you read the scene as tongue-in-cheek, it’s hard not to cringe when Pat’s mercenary editor Kam (Merrin Dungey) opines that “Artists work best when they’re fighting their demons” and invokes Sylvia Plath. Creators Jeff Astrof (Trial & Error) and Sharon Horgan (Catastrophe) front-load Shining Vale‘s least original elements, at the expense of the witty raunch that is Horgan’s trademark. (“You look like you’re auditioning for Pornhub,” Pat tells Gaynor in one of the only truly funny moments from the premiere. “You don’t audition for Pornhub, your ex-boyfriend puts you on it,” Gaynor retorts.) Spoiler embargoes prevent me from saying much about the plot twists that go a long way towards correcting the show’s course, although fun supporting turns from Mira Sorvino and Judith Light certainly help. Suffice to say that if you can hang on until episode 3, you’ll find a stranger, more amusing haunted-house story lurking behind all the peeling wallpaper.
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