There’s a certain moral repeated a few times throughout Hulu’s Candy, including in its first few minutes and its last. “The next time you’re sad because you didn’t get what you want, you just wait,” Candy (Jessica Biel) tells her Vacation Bible School kids, “because God has something even better for you.”
I guess it’s as cutely ironic a summation as any of what happens in Candy, which centers on a woman whose desire to shake up her outwardly blissful but secretly stultifying suburban life explodes in spectacularly thick fashion. Mostly, though, it feels like an attempt by the series to put a neat little bow on a narrative that, over five hourlong episodes, has become increasingly muddled and unwieldy.
The Bottom Line
An unsatisfying telling of a compelling story.
For awhile, Candy, created by Robin Veith and Nick Antosca, coasts on style and the promise of substance. The latest entry in the current boom of miniseries based on notorious real-life crimes, this one centers on Candy Montgomery, a suburban Texas homemaker who in 1980 became the prime suspect in the murder of Betty Gore (Melanie Lynskey) — Candy’s friend and the wife of her ex-lover Allan (Pablo Schreiber). Investigators determined Gore had been hacked 41 times with an axe. It’s a story so horribly compelling, there’s a whole other miniseries based on the same case coming later this year.
The first episode, written by Veith, is set on the day of Betty’s death, but focuses on the hours immediately before and after while leaving the question of what exactly happened between the two women in Betty’s home that day ambiguous. Instead, it starts to build the case for why Candy did what she did by sketching out the world she inhabited — one defined by immense pressure to act the perfect wife and mother, setting aside any desires and needs of her own.
Pilot director Michael Upendahl establishes a heightened approach meant to provoke unease, and the fact that it’s not always clear if the unease is leading to terror or laughter only bumps up the tension. The costumes and styling are almost comically dowdy, with Biel in a tight perm and Lynskey enduring possibly the world’s least flattering set of bangs. At the same time, the spaces they inhabit feel queasy, shot from distancing low angles and lit in sickly yellows and bloody reds.
In the immediate aftermath of Betty’s death, Candy is bruised, bloodied and so shaken she seems on the verge of a panic attack — but apparently not so shaken she can’t lie to her husband Pat (Timothy Simons) about cutting her toe on the broken storm door at home. “Do you know, the one I asked you to fix?” she adds innocently.
Then again, we already know Candy’s used to put on a good face. When we first meet her, she’s a super-mom whose efficiency is only outshined by her cheer de ella; she responds to rejections with a sunny “Well, if you change your mind!” and she piles on extra errands to her already massive to-do list with nary a whisper of a complaint.
Betty, on the other hand, is clearly struggling. She spends the morning of her last day begging Allan to cancel his business trip rather than leave her at home with their screaming baby for yet another weekend, and then calling Allan’s boss to complain about her when he refuses.
But as revealed by episodes two and three, which cover the two years leading up to the murder, they’re really two sides of the same coin. Both are chafing under the minor indignities of everyday life — many of them coming from husbands who don’t mean to be cruel, but can’t help taking their wives for granted. When Pat magnanimously offers to make the kids ice cream sundaes so Candy can go meet a friend, for instance, he makes just one request on her way out the door: Would she mind melting the fudge and chopping the nuts before she goes? It’s a small moment of thoughtlessness, but without much beyond marriage and motherhood, Candy and Betty’s lives are comprised of little moments like these. Over time, they add up.
Lynskey is unsurprisingly excellent as Betty, if a little one-note—the character isn’t given much to play beyond misery, which Lynskey wears like a physical burden dragging down the corners of her mouth and the slope of her shoulders. Meanwhile, Biel does fine work in a slippery role, skating easily between superficial warmth and impenetrable hardness, effortless charisma and frenzied desperation.
The first three episodes don’t necessarily build the kind of momentum needed to explain the intensity of the crime, but they work reasonably well as a wry take on idealized motherhood. Unfortunately, it’s around the fourth episode that Candy loses its jogging, starting with a spoiler-y guest appearance that’s too cutesy by half and upends the show’s already tenuous balance of tones.
The better of the recent true-crime series, like Under the Banner of Heaven or The Girl from Plainville, have come armed with some larger purpose beyond simply recounting the juicy details — to examine religious fundamentalism in the former, or to humanize its central players in the latter. Initially, Candy appears to want to use its story to say something about conformity, maybe, or idealized femininity and domestic labor. But by the fifth episode, which revolves around Candy’s trial of her, the series seems to have forgotten what message it meant to deliver, in favor of sitting back to gawk at the circus.
Candy does make a few halfhearted last-ditch attempts to remind us there was a real tragedy under these salacious twists — most prominently by having Lynskey’s Betty appear in the courtroom. None of the other characters can see her or hear her, and even if they could they’d surely be uninterested in what she might have to say.
“That’s it?” Betty asks incredulously near the close of the series, frowning at the pointlessness of it all. She might as well have been speaking for me.