‘Candy’: In Hulu True Crime Drama, Jessica Biel Quivers With Unnerving Guilt
Just when it seems like there was too much true crime overload in streaming, we get a series like Hulu’s “Candy,” again proving why the genre has become such a cultural obsession. Maybe the appeal lies in how horrible acts suddenly erupt out of scenarios involving common people, sometimes making all too familiar bad decisions. On June 13th, 1980, Texan housewife Candy Montgomery committed a brutal murder which came out of an affair, which in turn came out of sheer neediness. As played by Jessica Biel, who disappears completely inside the role, Candy pulls us into the series by evoking the sheer dread of knowing you did something wrong. She’s an ordinary person who crossed a major line and as if on autopilot, walks to her doom. Or does she? In a rare streaming practice, Hulu will stream all five episodes over five consecutive dates.
Like so much true crime, the setting is American suburbia. Specifically in “Candy” it’s the dawn of the 1980s. In a sense it was the last remaining cycle of that mythical American neighborhood associated with the ‘70s. The housewife’s routine consists of being a loyal churchgoer and volunteering at Vacation Bible School over the summer. She has a bit of self-righteous smugness, including lecturing the minister on when he should make an appearance at VBS. Candy has a bit of an awkward friendship with Betty Gore (Melanie Lynskey), whose young daughter Christina (Antonella Rose) is best friends with Candy’s own small daughter, Becky (Aven Lotz). Both women appear to be bored with their husbands. Candy’s spouse Pat (Timothy Simons) is a nice enough man and father, prone to goofy behavior with the kids. There’s just no passion there. Betty, meanwhile, feels sexually unsatisfied with her husband, Allan (Pablo Schreiber). Their world takes a strange turn on June 13th, when Christina stays over at the Montgomerys, Allan goes on a business trip and Betty suddenly stops answering the phone all day long.
“Candy” has an instantly watchable force that works even better if you dive into the series forgetting that Candy Montgomery took an ax to Betty. Throughout all the episodes, Candy channels a duel tension. We know she did something terrible, but she has the force of will to try and ignore it. Showrunner Robin Veith was once a writer on the classic “Mad Men,” which is a completely different kind of series, yet one senses here the same fascination with personalities driven by their follies. Candy on the surface looks like a rather stern Christian suburbanite, but at home she reads saucy romance novels that turn her on. Eventually she lusts after Allan at church and gazes at the men during indoor volleyball games. She gets the courage to jump into his car and upfront propose an affair. At first the terms are very stark and simple. Candy wants sex without emotional attachment. But as countless such arrangements over history have learned, feelings have a way of creeping up. Allan accepts because his own home life is rather stale. Betty would also like a more exciting existence. Instead she’s also entrapped by her own conventions. She teaches at a local elementary school where she gives her entire class detention after someone eggs her house. Betty is aware she’s not liked by the kids, so small acts of passive aggressiveness bring some relief.
Like many great true crime stories, it is precisely how “Candy” captures murder in a mundane environment that makes it morbidly fascinating. Crime in suburbia is particularly shocking because it’s rarely expected. What’s so great about Biel’s performance is that subtly expressed the roiling emotions inside Candy without overacting. She’s like a church-going time bomb, acting smug and poised but with eyes that look unbearably tense. When she drives back home from Betty’s house, where she’s left a bloodbath, Biel brings out with real tension that feeling of having done something awful and now living with it. Notice how she scrubs a dining room table at home after getting another call inquiring about Betty. The way Biel scrubs is so keenly like someone doing some task but what they’re really thinking is, “will I get away with this?” During her trial, Candy will see Betty like a specter standing nearby, looking at her. Initially we don’t get gruesome violence, with only a quick glimpse at the murder scene. It’s during the trial that the full ferocity of the crime is dramatized with every chop and blood-splattered moment. By the final episode, “Candy” almost feels like a rug pool, yet an effective one. In court Candy describes that fateful day when Betty died, when the affair with Allan was exposed and she was confronted by an irate wife. Was it murder? Or did a fight over the hurtful revelation result in Candy using the axe to defend herself against a possibly murderous Betty? It sounds quite surreal, but this was the case presented in court which Candy eventually won. She seems surprised afterwards when her lawyer suggests she start life somewhere else.
There isn’t a tidy resolution to “Candy,” it’s too archaic of a case. Candy undoubtedly killed Betty. However, the jury seems to have been thrown off by a case centered on jealous rage. A murder is murder, yet on a broader level, a subtext is how the men are also at fault. Uncaring, clueless and cold, they took their wives for granted and never considered their needs. As a series, filmed with a glossy style that contrasts American sunshine with shadowy interiors, “Candy” strives to be more artful than some throwaway crime of the week show. True crime has become a genre as persistent as superheroes, to the point that Netflix is also producing its own Candy Montgomery series with Elizabeth Olsen. For now, this series does not feel like overkill because it lets Biel create a personality onscreen who is woefully flawed and proud, tragic and morbidly fascinating. The great irony is that Candy and Betty both wanted more out of their lives, at least in terms of feeling wanted and desired. Plenty of people feel this way. The shocking element is how something so common led to such a blood-stained breakdown. There lies a good explanation for why shows like this keep getting made. They remind us that a case like Candy could be living right next door.
“Candy” streams as a five-part series on May 9, 10, 11, 12 and 13 on Hulu.