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Castle Rock and Sharp Objects are the same show with different skins

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Two prominent debuts on two different networks both explore how a small-town past comes back to haunt a troubled protagonist

Photos courtesy of HBO / Hulu

No matter how splintered the cinematic landscape gets, the “twin films” phenomenon keeps resurfacing. Whether it comes from studios trying to ride each other’s publicity coattails, or just parallel evolution as different producers chase the same ideas through the zeitgeist, it’s still fairly common to see, say, the dystopian evil-twin fantasies Double and The Enemy coming out in the same year, or White House Down and Olympus Has Fallen — both White House invasion action movies — fighting for supremacy at the box office.

“Twin TV shows” don’t get nearly the same amount of cultural attention, though, maybe because so much of television operates around familiar, predictable trends — if one year sees four different procedural dramas about a troubled detective with a maybe-love-interest partner and a peculiarly quirky way of solving crimes, that just sounds like a slow year for detective procedurals.

But July 2018’s two biggest TV series debuts, HBO’s Sharp Objects and Hulu’s Castle Rock, may redefine the idea of twin TV shows. Both shows center on an emotionally damaged protagonist returning to the small, insular, judgmental town where they grew up. Both Sharp Objects’ reporter protagonist Camille (Amy Adams) and Castle Rock’s lawyer lead Henry Deaver (André Holland) trace their personal scars back to childhood, when a close family member died under mysterious circumstances.

Photo courtesy of Patrick Harbron / Hulu

Both are reluctant to return, but professional reasons force their hands, and they wind up investigating a fresh new mystery in town, while the locals lock arms against them. Both series slowly unravel the circumstances behind those cataclysmic deaths, flashing between the past and present as the protagonists catch up with former close friends, revisit their frustrating relationships with their mothers, and encounter an eerie collective of precocious, creepy kids.

And both series have a literary connection — Sharp Objects is an adaptation of a novel by Gone Girl author Gillian Flynn, while Castle Rock is set in one of Stephen King’s favorite fictional Maine settings, and frequently references his writing without directly adapting any of it.

There are certainly notable differences between the shows. The three initial episodes of Castle Rock that Hulu released for the series launch on July 25th tease at a larger supernatural explanation for the death of Henry’s father, and for the backstory behind the weird, unnamed young man (Bill Skarsgård) who draws Henry back to town. And there’s an open supernatural element in Henry’s childhood friend Molly (I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore’s Melanie Lynskey), who can’t help psychically eavesdropping on people around her. Sharp Objects, on the other hand, stays more or less in the realms of the real, even if it’s a dreamy, haunted-gothic version of reality.

Photo courtesy of Anne Marie Fox / HBO

As the two shows have progressed, it’s become gradually more evident that Camille’s major demons are inside her as remnants from her past, while Henry’s seem more external. He lost his father and became a pariah in Castle Rock as a child, and he’s losing his mother to dementia and his clients to an unsympathetic system, but he still seems significantly less damaged and fragile than Camille. (Somehow, the “hometown pariah” plot thread is the hardest thing to swallow in Castle Rock — in a Steven King-derived story, it’s somehow easier to accept the hints that a prison warden kept the devil locked up in a cage under Shawshank Prison than to accept that an entire town spontaneously, uniformly blamed a child for his own apparent kidnapping and abuse.)

But the two shows still feel like they’re operating under the same basic emotional parameters. Both are about the heavy burden of adulthood for people whose childhoods were oppressive rather than nurturing. Camille and Henry both seemingly had to grow up too fast and in an environment where they couldn’t trust the adults around them, and both project a weary version of toughness that mostly feels like resignation. They can’t help what happened to them, and they’re nearly past thinking they can help what happens to others, as well.

Photo courtesy of Patrick Harbron / Hulu

That sense of resignation gives both Castle Rock and Sharp Objects a particularly nihilistic, melancholy bent, and it’s likely something the two series are going to have to work through to reach any sort of closure or conclusion. Camille has her flashes of self-determination and confidence, especially dealing with her judgmental, demanding mother Adora, played by Patricia Clarkson. (Another thing both series have in common: their troubled mothers are scene-stealing highlights. Sissy Spacek as Henry’s adoptive mother Ruth is certainly kinder and more giving than Adora, but she’s just as much of an emotional barrier in different ways, and she’s just as intense when her scenes allow it.)

Henry, meanwhile, has voluntarily focused his career on representing death-row inmates — in Texas, yet — and his failure to shift public support their way has clearly left him bitter. When he gets the call about the unnamed prisoner asking for him in Castle Rock, he grimly responds that the man can’t possibly be his client, because “all my clients are dead.” But even when they’re doggedly doing their jobs, and standing up to other people in the process, Henry and Camille both have a beaten-down air, a sense of misery that seeps into every human interaction they have.

Photo courtesy of HBO

The towns they’re returning to highlight that feeling of despair. Both Castle Rock and Wind Gap are bright, cheery little hellholes, straight out of the David Lynch dreamtown playbook. Sharp Objects director Jean-Marc Vallée gives his series a much gauzier, floatier look than Castle Rock’s directors have, but both series take place in towns that seem to be projecting a sense of ordinary life, with a sharp taste of menace underneath. That sense of threat isn’t just a specific pitfall for the protagonists — if anything, Castle Rock and Sharp Objects suggest that the threat of scheming killers and lurking madness touches everyone in their settings, but that it takes an outsider to see it clearly.

Granted, the specific shape of their threats varies considerably. Castle Rock seems to be moving in the direction of a more standard horror story, one with a kind of magical boogeyman lurking in the shadows. Sharp Objects, on the other hand, sticks with relatively human dangers. Even so, that familiar “idealized suburb is a façade for darkness” theme links them more directly than any particular plot detail or character archetype.

In both stories, it takes a native to properly infiltrate a cloistered, insular small town, and to be accepted at least far enough to investigate its mysteries. But it also takes someone who’s made a clean break from the town’s madness to fight back against it. Castle Rock and Sharp Objects may ultimately be headed in very different directions, particularly if the latter sticks with Gillian Flynn’s storyline and comes to a clean conclusion, while Castle Rock has the potential to sprawl out like any open-ended series. But they’re both likely to keep touching on the same basic, relatable storylines about how hard it is for adults to shake off their earliest hurts, and how the past tends to take on a life of its own.