Monday, March 16, 2015

TV Review: Secrets and Lies: Episodes 1-4

I've developed a new addiction in the last couple weeks. This one to ABC's new drama Secrets and Lies. It's yet another American import of an overseas original. I haven't seen the Australian version of the show, and I can't help but to assume that that's a good thing. Not knowing what similarities or differences can be found between the two series has got to be a part of the reason I've enjoyed the show's first 4 hours. After all, it was the specter of the great Broadchurch which stopped me from being able to watch more than the first 15 minutes of Gracepoint. And here we have another import show based around a young boy's murder, so I can't help but to think that the best way to tackle this series is to go in blind. Having done so, I can say that this is yet another flawed, but supremely enjoyable TV series.

Secrets and Lies starts off with Ben Crawford (Ryan Phillippe) stumbling across the body of his young neighbor Tom Murphy. Distraught over the fact that he just found a young boy's body in the woods, and also by the fact that this was a child he was particularly close to, Ben rushes to call the cops and try to put the wheels in motion to find Tom's killer. Enter Detective Andrea Cornell (Juliette Lewis). Her job, of course, is to find out who killed Tom, but for all intents and purposes she's decided that the answer to that question is Ben Crawford, and all of her work over the course of the first four episodes has been about trying to prove that. What follows is a series of events in which Ben works to clear his name and make sure the finger of blame is pointing everywhere but at him, and Detective Cornell does some of the worst detective work imaginable as she tries to get enough evidence against Ben to make a conviction stick. And, of course, the news that a young boy from their neighborhood is dead and that their father and husband is suspected of the crime tears the Crawford family apart.

What sets Secrets and Lies apart from other whodunit mysteries is that it's not really about solving the mystery. The steps Ben and Cornell are taking to clear his name and convict it respectively are just pathways through which the real story flows. The important thing about this show is right there in the title (subtlety is not their strong suit). This crime and the subsequent investigation serve to out the Crawfords and their neighbors' many different secrets and expose their many deceptions. The family and town drama aspects are the better and stronger aspects of the show; on another series the reverse would be true. Just today I was talking to a friend about this series and she said she doesn't even care who killed Tom, she's just tuning in each week to see what new salacious tidbit will be revealed. And I couldn't agree more because the truth is that no resolution to this story is capable of being as fun or interesting as the things we've seen thus far and still stand to see in the future. The strength of Secrets and Lies is in the journey not the destination.

But for as good as the family drama and the episodic twists and turns are, the basic framework of the show is really shoddy. When they aren't dropping atomic truth bombs, they're fighting against a number of elements that continually pull me out of their storytelling. For starters, no one on the show seems to honestly believe that Ben is innocent. The people firmly in his corner are thus far limited to his youngest daughter Abby (Belle Shouse), and his best friend Dave (Dan Fogler). Dave is a deadbeat who spends the first four episodes living in a kind of mother-in-law-suite in Ben's backyard, so maybe take his support with a grain of salt. Tom's mother, Jess (Natalie Martinez), is also on team Ben, but whether that's because she honestly believes Ben wouldn't be capable of that, or because she still harbors feelings for him after the fling they had which produced Tom (not so incidentally) is a matter that's still up for debate.

But everyone else from the detective to his other neighbors to his wife and his oldest daughter all seem to think he did it. Or, at least in the case of his wife and oldest daughter, they don't seem to be sure one way or another. This surprises me most in the case of the wife and the neighbors. It's not that you wouldn't be sure of Ben's innocence were you close to him, but to think that he was at all capable of this act seems to be a base betrayal. We see Ben interact with people and it presents us with a picture of a man who's got along great with his neighbors for years now. All of a sudden they all think he's a child killer who should burn in hell? That's a big leap to take over night. And as for his wife,  Christy (KaDee Strickland), if she's ready to believe it's at all possible that her husband is a murderer, then why is she still with him at all?

The biggest place where the show seems to be straining credability is in the mystery and the murder investigation aspects. Ben is doing a lot of his own detective work to try and clear his name, and he's oddly kind of good at it. He at least finds Jess' abusive military husband who's on the run from the MP's and kind of from the cops too, and yet is found by Ben after an episode of looking. Ben Crawford is a painter, so where'd he get all these detective skills? Or is it that police work is so easy that anyone could do it? Because if that's the case, then why is Cornell so incapable? I don't think that the show is actually making the point that she is incapable so much as unwilling to look anywhere other than at Ben, but the extent to which she lacks any kind of counterbalancing is odd. No one else in the police department thinks she might be better served using the smallest amount of the effort she's putting into proving her suspicions to maybe look at other options?

Other than that, the show has a few logistical concerns to work out, some bad acting (or at least I think it's bad acting, it could just be poor character development) to overcome, and my overall biggest concern for it: how do you sustain this story over the course of multiple seasons? As I said before, I don't think that the question of who killed Tom Murphy is the central aspect of the show, but it is the skeleton holding all of these pieces together. And if it takes longer than a season to find out who killed Tom, or more importantly to prove once and for all that Ben didn't, then I think we're just in shoddy storytelling territory. But on the other hand, if that particular mystery is solved by the time this season is up, then what? Without the stress of the investigation, without the continued interactions between Ben and Cornell, then what is the show about? Do we stop revealing people's secrets and just start dealing full time with the fallout from those secrets? And even before that inevitability comes along, how long can the show continue to milk this shocking surprise for shock's sake methodology? Everyone has secrets and everyone lies, but for now those secrets are at least novel enough to keep us watching. Eventually they might either stop being surprising or have to get bigger and sillier and juicier just to keep our interest, and that'll put the show in shark jumping territory sooner rather than later. But for now, I don't think anyone is concerning themselves with those kinds of questions. The fact of the matter is the one thing this show does with great skill is reveal big sloppy secrets that can make jaws drop and people gasp with shock and anticipation. If that's their strong suit as well as the focal point of the series, then I'll continue to look forward to how they manage that each week.

Random Thoughts:

--About the bad acting thing, is it just me or is Juliette Lewis just the worst in this? I can't tell if her one expression, cardboard robot routine is the result of bad acting or something deeper going on with her character, but I think we need answers quick. If her character is somewhere on the autism spectrum, then I'd like to know for sure and I'll engage with her differently, but if she's not, then I'd like for her to develop a bit of range and more emotions.

--I hate to put this on a child but there's some odd choices being made with Ben's youngest daughter too. I don't want to think that Belle Shouse is a bad actress, but I also can't tell. I think the problem is probably more of the script's fault. She seems to be written a lot younger than that actress appears to be. A lot of her lines and affectations at least feel like they'd be better on a 7 or 8 year old, and while I don't know how old Shouse is in real life, my guess is around 11.

--Back on the subject of Jess' abusive military husband: I find him to be laughably unbelievable as a villain. He's a super military guy with specialized training who breaks into Ben's house in the night in order to stand over and him and make stupid threats. I'm not saying people like him don't exist, I'm just saying I have a hard time taking him seriously.

--One aspect of the story that I didn't talk about is the core spiral of Ben's mental state as he deals with these accusations. He no longer knows who he can trust, his family is kind of imploding, his teenage daughter is being as teenagery as you can get, and his paranoia is causing him to lash out at those closest to him and do stupid things. It all makes perfect sense and it's ridiculously fun to watch. To the extent that this is a story about how hard and impossible it is to keep it all together in the face of being accused of a murder you (probably) didn't commit, it's really quite brilliant. In fact, after the last two episodes, I'd say that that story is even better than the who's hiding what aspect of the show.

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