Stories about the darkness lurking behind the smiles of the suburban middle class are a dime a dozen in American popular culture. From The Stepford Wives (1975) to Blue Velvet (1986) to American Beauty (1999) to Desperate Housewives (2004-2012), the past five decades have been saturated with media that dives into the deep sadness and twisted darkness behind the white picket fence. While there isn’t anything particularly wrong with Hulu’s new series Candy, it doesn’t do much to justify its existence in a canon full of nearly-identical films and TV series that are simply better versions of the same story.
Part of the issue is that Candy doesn’t seem to know what tone it wants to go for. There are well-done moments of detached, deadpan irony that feel a bit like Heathers (1989), moments of indulgent and sexy scandal, and moments of sinister terror, but the series never commits to any of these moments long enough to get anything meaningful out of them. In-between these brief moments of tonal specificity are a lot of drawn-out, painfully-paced scenes that make Candy ultimately feel like an uncharacteristically boring season of Desperate Housewives.
The one appeal that Candy makes to originality is that, unlike Desperate Housewives, it is based on a true story. The series tells the true-crime tale of Candy Montgomery (Jessica Biel), a popular, church-going, upstanding suburbanite who spontaneously murders her friend Betty Gore (Melanie Lynskey) with an axe. Before the murder, Candy had been having an affair with Betty’s husband Allan (Pablo Schreiber). Candy claims that she murdered Betty in self-defense, and the jury’s verdict sides with her claim.
Both women’s lives are shown to be sufficiently bleak, stressful, and full of pent-up rage and misery. The audience is left with a very clear understanding of why either woman would crack and choose to attack the other since both are trapped in the “lives of quiet desperation” that American cinema associates with suburban life. The larger supporting cast also fills out this landscape well, showing how a Tupperware-filled world breeds discontentment and a yearning for more.
Despite the brutal pacing and tonally confused script, some worthwhile moments do emerge. The performances are stellar: Biel and Lynskey both perfectly capture their characters’ deep loneliness and longing. While Candy and Betty are not written as particularly different characters from, say, Annette Bening’s character in American Beauty and Julianne Moore’s in The Hours (2002), the two actresses do produce similarly compelling performances. Pablo Schreiber and Timothy Simons are also compelling as the two obtuse husbands, and Raúl Esparza perfectly manages an entertaining parody of a showboating defense attorney.
The series also makes it clear how structures of misogyny and sexism set the scene for the character’s misery. Lynskey delivers a stellar monologue about the intense amount of unappreciated labor expected from women and how this work can tear someone down when they’re expected to do it without any help or support. The oppressive world of the suburbs is a brutally patriarchal one that demands intense work from women while separating them from support systems.
The sound design does a lot of work to develop this critique. Betty’s life is a soundscape of oppressively humming appliance motors, crying babies, and aggressive vacuum cleaners, and the audio alone is enough to transport the viewer into the overwhelming stress that characterizes every inch of her life. The series deserves strong praise for its work with sound and audio. The visuals and cinematography also sufficiently communicate the seemingly inescapable isolation in which characters feel trapped.
Also effective is the show’s critique of the police force and the way that legal systems of policing are designed to quickly villainize people. Sexist slut shaming leads investigators to make assumptions about Candy far before they have the evidence they need to fully understand the case, and it is clear how misogyny and discrimination are structurally baked into the American criminal justice system. The institutional biases of the law enforcement system are on full display in the incompetent, bigoted, and biased way that police and prosecutors work.
The biggest saving grace of the series, however, is its final episode, “The Fight,” which is almost worth watching on its own. A combination of tense courtroom drama, parodic pseudo-psychology, and brutal murder makes the episode a thrilling hour that stands out as a remarkably visceral episode of an otherwise dull miniseries. The show could have almost cut the first four episodes and just aired the fifth, and it would have been significantly better. It feels like this was the episode that the showrunners actually wanted to make, and Hulu may have been better off producing an extended version of this episode as a film rather than creating a full miniseries.
If you have patience for slow pacing, and if you love true crime or the suburban gothic enough to enjoy even a mediocre offering of it, Candy may be worth a watch. It might also be worth simply watching the first and fifth episodes for the outstanding “The Fight” while skipping the grind of getting through the other 3. For the majority of viewers, however, it will not be worth the time; you can get a better version of the same experience by watching a season of Desperate Housewives instead. Hopefully, HBO’s upcoming take on the stories of Candy Montgomery and Betty Gore will be more engaging.Watch Candy Now Streaming