It feels like only yesterday – because it was – that I was wondering whether we might be approaching peak true-crime consumption, regardless of how much more of it the streaming platforms shovel our way. We are certainly at the point where we can afford to ignore the voyeuristic dross (the kind that sells itself with the promise that Ted Bundy can be heard – saying f-all of significance – on newly discovered tapes) and concentrate on the better quality end of the spectrum: documentaries about miscarriages of justice or systemic legal/social/political failings, say, or dramas that flesh out intangible aspects of a story that factual programming is not designed for.
The latest addition to the last category is the five-part miniseries Candy (Disney+). It stars Jessica Biel as Texas housewife Candy Montgomery, who in 1980 was accused of murdering Betty Gore, her neighbour and the wife of her lover Allan Gore, by striking her 41 times with an axe. She claimed it was self-defence after Betty attacked her with the weapon during a confrontation about the affair. When the jury agreed and she walked free, there was an outcry. The case has been the subject of at least one documentary, and another miniseries – starring Elizabeth Olsen – is due out next year.
Only two episodes of Candy have been released for review, but so far it seems to be settling comfortably at the better-quality end of things. It is a study of the suburban mores of – oh dear God – 40 years ago and of specifically female rage (not wholly a result of the former, but the more Candy details her small social round, the closer you find yourself to screaming.)
Co-created by Nick Antosca, creator of the similarly effective true-crime drama A Friend of the Family, and Robin Veith, Candy is intelligently scripted and directed. It also has two phenomenal performances. Biel as Candy provides a mesmerising portrait of the effort that goes into being the perfect mom and homemaker, the jittery energy beneath the smooth facade, and what happens when maintaining that facade and the local kudos that comes with it is no longer enough. We see Candy’s boredom (her husband is a nice, dull guy who is no longer much interested in sex) becoming dangerously undeniable to her, and her unfulfilled longings – sexual and otherwise – fuel a rage that seems set to end in murder. The touchpaper is lit by seeing her friend get divorced and enjoying all the excitement that comes with starting a new life.
She is matched by Melanie Lynskey – fresh off Yellowjackets – as Betty, another and more obvious victim of the problem that dare not speak its name. Feminism has passed her by even more thoroughly than it has Candy. She is depressed after the birth of her third child, and in the wake of losing her job and of returning a foster child she and her husband, Allan, deemed unmanageable to social services. Allan is not a bad guy – just a typical one: off on work trips, unaware of duties at home and heedless of a wife he has long taken for granted. Lynskey shows us the slow, devastating grind of it all, the burdens silently shouldered and the smouldering resentment that makes you wonder how more murder wasn’t done – though the pills she takes as the children start bickering again may explain some of that.
The first two episodes concentrate on the prelude to the murder, portraying the community and the relationships between the characters, capturing the positives and the negatives of small-town life, and building a sense of dread as the ennui permeating the characters’ lives curdles into something more toxic. Whether the remaining three episodes – which, presumably, will cover the trial and verdict while filling in the backstory – will continue in such a psychologically astute vein remains to be seen. And, of course, the questions around whether any depiction of real-life murderers results in glamorising them remain.
Still, female rage is an under-explored topic – whether or not it culminates in murder. If Candy concentrates on that, rather than the 41 Lizzie Borden-esque blows, it could add something to the sum of human knowledge, if not exactly happiness.
• This article was amended on 14 October 2022. An earlier version said that Candy was “created and partly written” by Nick Antosca. He co-created it, with Robin Veith, but was not involved in writing it.