“Under the Banner of Heaven” emerges as an engaging fact-based drama set around the Mormon Church in the 1980s, while “Shining Girls” transforms a time-traveling serial-killer plot into a somewhat unintelligible thriller for Apple TV+.
The grisly murder of a mother (Daisy Edgar-Jones) and her kid kicks off “Under the Banner of Heaven,” which plays like a cross between “True Detective” and “Big Love,” showing the kind of dark secrets that small communities raised to true-crime stature usually seem to hold.
The seven-episode series, directed by Dustin Lance Black (“Milk”) and adapted from Jon Krakauer’s book, stars Andrew Garfield as Jeb Pyre, the investigator who solves the case, leaving widower husband Allen Lafferty (Billy Howle) as the leading suspect. However, the investigation uncovers more sinister origins that point to a bigger plot including the Lafferty family’s support of fundamentalist ideals and the heinous actions associated with them.
Pyre, on the other hand, is a family man and churchgoer whose faith is put to the test by the heinous nature of the crime and the defensive response from local authorities. His position is countered by his grizzled partner (Gil Birmingham), an outsider who is more than eager to play bad policeman if necessary.
As the memories progressively putty in how the outspoken woman would have been a murder target, the framing is a touch shaky. It also doesn’t help that the novel goes back to the story of church founder Joseph Smith and his roots — an aspect of the book that, in this format, detracts from the more contemporary plot, as if the story has taken an abrupt detour into a History Channel docudrama.
Still, the central mystery provides a powerful hook, and the material is elevated by an exceptionally good cast, including Sam Worthington, Wyatt Russell, and Rory Culkin as Allen’s older siblings, with Allen chillingly saying, “I couldn’t hear the holy spirit in the same way my brothers could” after telling Pyre, “You might not be as good a Mormon as you think.”
“Under the Banner of Heaven” isn’t perfect, but it’s a good programme, which is more than can be said for “Shining Girls,” which squanders a cast led by Elisabeth Moss, who also serves as the show’s producer.
The project stars Moss as Kirby, a newspaper archivist who survives a terrible attack but discovers that her own reality continues altering, as if the playing field is being reset, based on Lauren Beukes’ novel. Her search for answers leads her to pair up with a reporter (underemployed “Narcos” star Wagner Moura), hoping to piece together a trail of victims that spans decades.
Phillipa Soo (“Hamilton”) plays another prospective victim, while Jamie Bell co-stars as the mystery time-traveler. Despite the required flashbacks, the explanation for this science-fiction-style variation on a serial-killer scenario is left pretty ambiguous — it’s unclear what the rules are — not that those specifics matter all that much when the production shifts into thriller gear down the stretch.
Moss is undeniably talented, but she can only do so much with such weak and perplexing material. While “Shining Girls” appears to be potentially intriguing at first sight, by the time one has watched all eight of the show’s disappointing episodes, the light has gone out, and it will be too late for viewers to hit the rewind button.
Hulu will premiere “Under the Banner of Heaven” on April 28.