Candy Montgomery (Jessica Biel) packs her colorful circular Tupperware with breaded meats and whipped cream Jell-o monstrosities. She brings a picnic patterned tablecloth to the run-down hotel where she’s meeting her friend’s husband, Alan (Pablo Schrieber), for an affair. When she puts on lipstick, she’s studying herself over a pair of oversized plastic glasses. And when she finds herself covered in the blood of that same friend (Melanie Lynskey), she steadies those same chunky glasses before establishing her alibi. Hulu’s five-episode series “Candy,” it turns out, is a thoroughly entertaining and indelibly ‘80s crime drama.
In a landscape of true crime shows ranging from doggedly accurate to frustratingly sensational, “Candy” carves out a niche of its own. The series is offbeat, laced through with black humor, but it’s also anchored by the seriousness of the crime at its core. The real-life Montgomery stood trial for the murder of Betty Gore (played by Lynskey in the series) in 1980, but before that, the series imagines the pair as two strangely compelling housewives whose lives end up linked in surprising ways.
The Candy and Betty of “Candy” are like echoes of one another; they’re decidedly different, but both feel trapped in their homes in some way or another. Candy, whose marriage to Pat (“Veep” actor Timothy Simons) is good-natured but unexciting, longs for the type of sexual adventure she reads about in romance novels. Betty, prone to bouts of overwhelmed emotion, feels stuck and abandoned when Alan leaves her alone with their kids. The former is popular and charming, while the latter is a self-conscious outcast. Each distinctive element of the pair’s characterization only fascinates further as the series makes its way down the path that led to the axe killing at the show’s center.
“Candy” doesn’t opt for a straightforward story, instead, beginning around the time of Betty’s death before leaping back in time to explain–as best it can–exactly what led to it. The show moves through time, mostly in two and three-month increments, to create a holistic portrait of two families–one mostly normal, the other tragically dysfunctional. Series co-creator Nick Antosca, who made the show along with Robin Veith (“The Expanse”), employs the same careful and intriguing narrative structure here as he did in 2019’s Munchausen-by-proxy drama “The Act.”
2022 already seems to be one of the most true-crime saturated years on record, with shows like “The Dropout,” “Inventing Anna,” and “The Girl From Plainville” taking over watercooler conversations almost weekly. The trend shows no signs of stopping, with other titles like HBO’s “The Staircase” and, oddly, another version of Candy Montgomery’s story (HBO’s “Love and Death”) set to drop soon. So how is one meant to separate the true-crime wheat from the chaff, so to speak?
Before “Candy,” I would have said that the most truthful depictions of real-life crimes were typically also the best ones, but the show manages to capture the imagination despite and because of its dramatic flourishes. “Candy” uses its two antsy and unhappy housewives to imagine a distinct microcosm of gendered household labor, in which men can make or ruin their wives’ whole days with a compliment, a favor, or a moment of neglect. Both Candy and Betty are unsatisfied sexually, leading one to an affair and the other two a very ‘80s form of marriage counseling. The show doesn’t explain away its brutal central act as a side effect of the two womens’ thankless relationships, but it does present them as the water in which they were treading as they made pivotal, sometimes horrifying choices.
Across five episodes, the show builds its compelling story without necessarily trying to explain itself much at all, presenting plenty of small details–a peppermint candy, a ringing cord telephone, a newspaper review of “The Shining”–as either vital or random, depending on how you tilt your head. The series also can’t help but belie its dark story with wryness, a wink at all the permed hair and cord telephones. As it wears on, certain elements, like Candy’s breathlessly repeated alibi and the pathetic dude-ishness of both Alan and Pat, start to feel inexplicably funny. Yet the show handles its morbid elements well, bathing the womens’ bedrooms in red light and capturing the gore of its crime scene with the appropriate balance of shock and restraint.
“Candy” works thanks largely to its well-cast leads and their archetype-bucking characters. True crime shows may be a dime a dozen, but this is the only one with Melanie Lynskey. The always-excellent actress plays Betty as an oddly off-putting but ever-striving woman, an outcast who can’t seem to find her footing in the small-town Texas community or within her own home. She works as a teacher, but students dislike her so much that they egg her house. She tries to foster a child, but feels slighted and frustrated by his every action. More miserable than malicious, she’s the type of mom who’s rarely seen on screen, and Lynskey embodies the role with nuance and care.
As hyper-productive Candy, who makes big butcher paper to-do lists for extramarital affairs, Biel also shines. She’s at once a daydreamer and a perfectionist, always reaching beyond the confines of her tidy life despite its relative happiness. She’s unapologetic, but the show reveals her hairline cracks to viewers, even if she can’t see them herself. Simons and Schreiber are also the right actors for the job, embodying the pair’s equally shaded-in yet vastly different husbands. Both actors are crucial to the series’ success, as minute shifts in their attention propel their wives into action in shocking ways.
“Candy” will air as a multi-night event on Hulu, a strategy that not only perfectly reflects the series’ all-in commitment to its ‘80s aesthetic, but also fits the show’s relatively modest ambitions. Unlike plenty of its true crime counterparts, “Candy” doesn’t seem like it wants to make broad statements about violence or human nature. Even its takes on marriage are deceptive, as each character’s frame of reference clearly skews their perspective on their own relationship. No, instead, the show just wants to tell a highly specific story–about one weird, somewhat inexplicable crime in the ‘80s–thoroughly and well. Like Candy with her infidelity checklist, in the end, it makes it happen. [B+]