There seem to be a bunch of shows about everyday people living with the supernatural; Ghosts and Wolf Like Me come to mind immediately. Starz’ new series Shining Vale is about a depressed woman who is the only one in her family who sees ghosts. Maybe a familiar premise, but do those other shows star Courteney Cox and Greg Kinnear and are co-created by Sharon Horgan?
Opening Shot: An SUV drives down a rural road, “Evil Woman” from ELO blaring on the speakers.
The Gist: The Phelps family is moving from Brooklyn to Shining Vale, Connecticut, but it’s not just to get some fresh air. Terry (Greg Kinnear) and Pat (Courteney Cox) have been navigating a marriage crisis, ever since Pat cheated on Terry with the handyman. In fact, when Terry tries to find out what Pat is thinking in the car, she comes off her memories of handyman sex and says, “You don’t want to know.”
Also in the car is their snotty teenage daughter Gaynor (Gus Birney) and the painfully shy, video-game obsessed son Jake (Dylan Gage). He’s so out of it that, as they roll up to the gate of their new house, he thinks they’re on vacation. But before they get to the house, Pat thinks that she sees a little girl with a ball in the road, but Terry doesn’t see anything; he thinks it’s just a deer.
The new house is massive, but Terry got it for $200k below asking, unusual in this marker. As realtor Robyn Court (Sherilyn Fenn) shows them around, she informs them that the house has been unoccupied for two years and that “she’s probably not used to having people inside of her.”
Pat wrote a hit female-empowerment erotic novel almost two decades ago, has been stuck on her second one, to the point where her editor is demanding the advance back. The very first night, Pat thinks she sees a “handsome woman” in an old-fashioned dress. Terry tries to believe her, but he’d rather just chalk things up to the presence of deer, then go out and chop wood to get out his frustrations.
For some reason, Pat decided to chose the dark, cold attic to be her writing space. When she’s up there, trying to get going, she finds a photo of the woman and the girl she saw in the road, and a gruff voice says “Patricia!”, causing her to drop the photo. She calls Terry in from work to check and he sees nothing.
When she takes the dog out to do his business, she hears rustling in the woods. She’s scared but relieved to see it’s actually a deer. But when she comes back, the ghost she’s been seeing (Mira Sorvino) appears, smoking a cigarette.
What Shows Will It Remind You Of? Shining Vale is like Ghosts, but with bigger stars and more swearing.
Our Take: Shining Vale was co-created by Sharon Horgan (Catastrophe) and showrunner Jeff Astrof (Trial & Error), and it certainly has elements of both of their sensibilities, though it feels like Horgan’s sometimes-caustic wit comes through in much of the first episode. Let’s just say that Cox’s character Pat uses a lot of f-bombs and other curses, and even acknowledges to Gaynor to not be like her.
We really want to like Shining Vale, given the pedigree and its stars. Cox and Kinnear both do credible jobs as the Phelpses, with Cox playing Pat’s flop-sweaty desperation to start her new novel, paired with her desire to keep her family together as a somewhat-against-type highlight. Kinnear does his usual fine job as the somewhat clueless Terry, who knows he has the upper hand in this marriage since he caught Pat cheating. Both Birney and Gage have some funny lines as the Phelps’ very standard-grade teenagers.
But the show is neither funny enough nor dramatic enough to draw us into what’s going on with the Phelps family. The entire time we were watching we were wondering what would prompt this family to move out this creepy mansion, what would make Pat set up her writing space in the creepy attic, and pretty much what this move has to do with saving the Phelpses’ marriage.
Perhaps as we get introduced to the ghosts, like Sorvino’s Rosemary, we’ll find out more about why they’re there and why they’ve chosen to communicate through Pat. There’s a graphic that mentions that the symptoms of depression and possession are very similar, especially in women, and Pat’s going to likely spend the first season trying to figure out which is which.
But as she flails around, trying to convince her family that something is there when they can’t see it, is going to be hard to watch, not matter who was playing Pat.
Sex and Skin: Except for some closeup flashbacks of Pat having sex with the handyman, we don’t see much.
Parting Shot: Rosemary shows herself fully to Pat and says, “Patricia, what are you doing in my house?”
Sleeper Star: Mainly because we can never get enough of Sherilyn Fenn, let’s hope we see her weird relator character Robyn in more episodes.
Most Pilot-y Line: Pat sees Gaynor in tiny shorts on the first day at their new school and tells her, “You look like you’re auditioning for PornHub.”
Our Call: SKIP IT. Shining Vale may get better during its first season as we find out what’s actually driving this story. But its first episode was a loud mess of a show that seemed to be more satisfied with giving Courteney Cox as many chances to swear as possible than to actually establish its characters.
Joel Keller (@joelkeller) writes about food, entertainment, parenting and tech, but he doesn’t kid himself: he’s a TV junkie. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, Slate, Salon, RollingStone.com, VanityFair.com, Fast Company and elsewhere.