On June 13th, 1980, seemingly ordinary Texan housewife Candy Montgomery (Jessica Biel) went to her friend Betty Gore’s (Melanie Lynskey) house and brutally murdered her with an axe. How did a church-going, married mother of two reach a point where she struck another woman 42 times with a blade? Was it jealousy or self-defense? Nick Antosca (“The Act”) and Robin Veith (“Mad Men”) unpack the days before and after this event with stark, horror-esque storytelling in “Candy,” an effective five-hour mini-series that will unfold over five consecutive nights on the streaming giant, starting tonight, May 9th. Biel and Lynskey are typically phenomenal as two deeply dissatisfied housewives sent on a totally unimaginable collision course, even if “Candy” ultimately feels like it will get a little lost in the non-stop assault of true crime programming. (It’s such an industry now that this specific story is already in production again at HBO with Elizabeth Olsen, Jesse Plemons, Patrick Fugit, and Lily Rabe, under the title “Love and Death”).
Deeply dissatisfied by early ‘80s suburban ennui, Candy and Betty don’t realize how much they have in common. For one thing, they both have husbands who don’t touch their wives enough. Candy’s husband Pat (Timothy Simons of “Veep” fame) is a nice enough guy who basically ignores her when she tries to get intimate. She becomes increasingly turned on by romance novels and is inspired by a friend’s second chance at happiness after a divorce to find a new spark in her life. She basically decides to have an affair the same way some people make a grocery list. It’s one more thing she has to do in her life. And the easiest target is someone in her friend circle, Allan Gore (Pablo Schreiber), Betty’s husband.
Betty arguably has it worse than Candy from the beginning. Allan is a distant husband, someone who’s either traveling or ignoring her at home. And when she adopts a child with serious anger issues, Allan doesn’t really step to the plate to help out. The always-great Schreiber deftly captures the kind of guy who isn’t malicious as much as innocuous, the kind of person who doesn’t realize he’s taking his wife for granted until it’s too late. And the stellar Lynskey expresses the numbing depression of suburbia in a way that doesn’t feel clichéd. She does so much with just a sigh or defeated body language. There’s also an interesting parallel track embedded in this story by Veith and Antosca in that Betty basically sees a new child in their home as a way to make her life more interesting while Candy chooses infidelity to spice up her boredom.
As for Biel, she has really turned a corner in terms of performance in the last few years, doing her career-best work on the excellent “The Sinner,” and proving here that that was no fluke. She imbues Candy with a jittery energy that makes it seem like this woman’s perfect house of cards had to collapse at some point. The way Candy treats her affair like something else on her housewife to-do list is fascinating. Get the groceries, pick up the kids, have sex with a friend’s husband. She’s even better in the scenes after the murder; she makes her breath shallower, repeats phrases, nods her head in an unnatural way—she’s got the air of a woman who knows the days before she gets caught are getting shorter. It’s a fantastic performance. “Candy” is worth seeing for its quartet of performers alone. (And I loved a sorta meta thing in the casting of the cops who end up leading the investigation that doesn’t seem public and so I won’t spoil.)
The creators of “Candy” wash their show in a too-dark, muted, brown palette that gets overdone. Yes, it’s effective in selling the bland tedium of the era and setting—and allows for splashes of bloody red to stand out—but it starts to draw attention to itself as a trick, draining some of the realism. And, while it’s no fault of the creators, it’s hard to shake the feeling that “Candy” is just more familiar now than it would have been a decade ago when true crime wasn’t such a content machine. What can we learn from “Candy”? Outside of casting its stars with consistency, not much really. But sometimes that’s sweet enough.
Whole mini-series screened for review.