"Shining Vale" creator on the horror of midlife: "Depression and possession share similar symptoms"

On "Salon Talks," Sharon Horgan discusses her new Starz horror-comedy starring Courteney Cox and Mira Sorvino

By Melanie McFarland

TV Critic

Published March 20, 2022 11:00AM (EDT)

Greg Kinnear (left) and Courteney Cox (right) in “Shining Vale” on STARZ (Photo courtesy of STARZ)
Greg Kinnear (left) and Courteney Cox (right) in “Shining Vale” on STARZ (Photo courtesy of STARZ)

Sharon Horgan has created some of TV funniest shows about disastrous couples on TV, with her best known credits being  "Catastophe" and "Divorce." But her latest comedy, "Shining Vale," takes her comedy into another realm. It might be Hell, insanity, or a classic midlife crisis. Maybe it's all three!

Whatever it is, Courteney Cox and Greg Kinnear's couple, Pat and Terry, teeters on the verge of the unknown. Pat, a writer having a tough time producing her second novel, has a one-time fling with a handyman. To recover, Terry suggests relocating to a small town, where they and their teenage children move into a creepy house.

To nobody's surprise Pat starts seeing a woman named Rosemary (Mira Sorvino) hanging around the home's cobwebbed recesses. Left unclear is whether Rosemary is a ghost intent on taking over Pat's life or a hallucination resulting from a mental break. The show has kept us guessing and laughing thus far, even as the family careens farther off the rails.

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"Shining Vale" is Horgan and writing partner Jeff Astrof's ("Trial & Error") way of digging into the commonalities between depression and possession through the lens of horror. In a recent conversation on "Salon Talks," she digs into the ways that Pat evokes the craziness of menopause, the expansion of shows about women over 40 and whether Pat is an extension of her own identity as a writer.

Watch our "Salon Talks" interview here or read a transcript of the conversation below:

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

"Shining Vale," is a horror comedy, which is tough to pull off. And you are doing it in a way that addresses both depression and midlife crisis.

Yeah. Very funny, aren't they?

Really! But these are common themes with your work. We see a bit of through "Catastrophe." We definitely see it in "Divorce." Here it takes on a different tone. We have Courteney Cox's character, Pat, who is married to Greg Kinnear's Terry, they have a couple of kids and they are restarting. But the dynamic that's a little bit unusual, for American television anyway, is that Pat has committed infidelity. When you and Jeff were creating this, why did you decide that Courteney's character was going to be the one who brought the rupture in the marriage to a head?

I think I'm way more qualified to talk about anything from a female point of view. And, the affair part of it, I think is the least important and the least interesting, really. We just wanted to give them a crisis in their marriage, and a reason to get the hell out of New York and move to this place where they have to attempt to start over. . . . But outside of that, it's not, I would say it was the catalyst for the move but beyond that, we don't go into it too much. Except in their therapy sessions. It's a fun aspect of the therapy sessions by the way.

There is a bit of exploration in the therapy sessions about the double standard when it comes to women's emotions versus men's and expressing it.

Yeah. Yeah. She's not really believed, I would say . . . [and] the doctor's reaction is just to up her meds. He doesn't really hear her. He doesn't really listen to her. And I think that's a theme throughout. . . . I don't necessarily think men have it any easier when it comes to mental health issues. I think everyone finds it hard to talk about these things. But definitely in our version of this story and because it's a comedy, our therapist doesn't really hear her. He's more team Terry, I think.

One of the things that is announced in the beginning of the series, or established, is that depression and possession share similar symptoms.

Yeah. Just in terms of a creative starting point for the show and an actual fact, it was the thing, I think, that drew Jeff to the project most when he read the pages. Because it's a fact, that was really helpful for us and really played into the idea of her not being believed. But also we want the audience to be unsure, to really, fully not be able to figure out whether this is going on in her head. Whether the house is truly possessed or whether she's losing her mind.

I have a lot of female friends who are round about my age, in their 50s, and a lot of them have teenage children.

And, quite often you'll find our heads actually spinning off of our bodies and doing a full 360 with the rage that you can feel. I've never felt more out-of-my-mind dangerous as when I'm having an argument with my teenage daughter. But I think, menopausally speaking as well, you feel really crazy.

. . . It's hard to always diagnose when you're losing your marbles just through life in general at this stage of your life. Because I just think it's the hardest possible period. You're in a situation where chemically, you're all over the place. Your children are reaching an age where, usually, they're teenagers going through terrible times themselves, and you're at the least emotionally equipped to deal with it, because you're also off your nut. Your parents are getting older. You're losing people. It's a really emotionally draining tough time. And so I think with Pat, we just gave her all of that.

We gave her a mother with a history of mental illness herself and an assumption that Pat has that it's in the family, so therefore it's natural that it's going to happen to her too. We gave her writer's block, a fear of failing. We gave her an absolutely extraordinarily horny teenage daughter, and an apathetic teenage son. And a husband who's really a really good guy, but in trying to make the best of it . . . So it's a huge melting pot of emotions that are just ripe for bad things that happen.

But another thing that has been a recent – I won't necessarily say development, but definitely an expansion on TV, of the telling of women's stories, specifically women over 40. Do you think that there's been a shift in terms of getting the green light on shows like these? And what do you think the reason is for that, or the catalyst?

There's usually a few reasons. Often it comes down to money, doesn't it? It comes down to who's watching and who you're selling to. But also I think it depends on the broadcaster. It depends on the streamers. A lot of them now have women in very senior positions, right at the very top of the ladder. And they want to see their stories reflected back at them, whereas for years it was very heavily white male-dominated. So they were the stories that they wanted to see, and it was like boys at the top pulling the other boys up. But also, I think it's just they can see that female stories sell and they get these huge audiences.

And just because it's a female-authored show or female-directed show, or just seen through a female lens at all doesn't mean that it's only going to get a female audience. It's proven that these stories, especially when it's genre. Like with "Killing Eve" or, it doesn't really matter that it has two female protagonists at the heart of it.

I feel the same way about "Shining Vale." We are really lucky to be with a broadcaster, Starz, who [is] all about telling female stories. And, that's really what they want to do. That's what they actively look for.

What I love about "Shining Vale" is the fact that, along with the horror-comedy element and along with its examination of depression, is this examination through Mira Sorvino's character, Rosemary, of repression. . . . She's very much representative of that desperate housewife trope,  from the '50s. And I love that about that character, but I also love the fact that you see it in Pat and Terry's marriage. You see these things that they gave up so they can just do what was prescribed for them in life. That must have been interesting to bring that into the horror comedy framework.

We just wanted to examine the idea of what could have happened to Rosemary had she lived during this time, rather than in the '50s. Would her life have been different?. . . She was a surrendered wife and not happy with it.

. . . But, I think women weren't listened to back then. And it was very few women who spoke out about the role that they were just told that they had to do. And if you didn't like it, you had to lump it. I can't imagine what that must have felt like if it really wasn't what you wanted.

Also, there's just something really terrifying about a '50s housewife as an image. That being coiffed to within an inch of your life. It's borderline psychotic in itself! And just that she gets to live through Pat, who is just the living opposite of the woman she would've been when she was alive.

What's expected of Pat is, it is completely different but at the same time it's still having to fulfill a role, isn't it? And if you're not happy in that role there's something wrong with you. That's what you're made to feel. The idea of not finding motherhood easy, or not being a good wife or not being a natural homemaker.

Of course, it's way more easy to say how you feel about those things now. But it still makes you feel like you're failing in some way, certainly as a mother.

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I have to wonder, is there a part of Pat in you? What parts of you are expressing through her?

She's so Jeff. She's so Jeff! Jeff Astrof is an absolute dope, and I love him. And it's been wonderful collaborating with him. But he's so full of anxiety about his writing and hates it. And often feels like he doesn't know where his next idea is coming from, or just says he has no ideas, or belittles himself, and he's just full of neurosis. And so I think there's a lot of him in Pat.

But I was laughing earlier because it is really indulgent to have two writers write about a writer. Because you get to put in all those tropes and all your worries and the phone calls with agents and just the doubt. And all the things you get to offload a bit. And in a way it's the same when I write about relationships.

I've always said that I'd rather write a TV show, and make a TV show, and edit it, and put it out there than actually have a conversation with the man I was married to.            

I thought if I can just get it out of me, then I don't have to talk about it. So I think there's huge therapy in writing about those things, and it's also quite a relief to have a main character who's a writer as well. And, there's all sorts of stuff we want to do with that in the second season as well when the book hits the shelves. It's really fun.

Oh, I can't wait for that. Just her reading parts from it is just spectacular.

Whatever you're thinking, it's going to be worse than that.

New episodes of  "Shining Vale" debut at 10 p.m. Sundays on Starz.

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By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's TV critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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