Sunday, March 1, 2015

Pilot Review: Secrets and Lies

Secrets and Lies (Sundays at 9:00 on ABC)

If there's one genre I want to see die out, it's the "dead kid mystery" genre. You know exactly what I'm talking about. It began a few years ago with The Killing, found its way overseas to Broadchurch, came back to the States as Gracepoint, and was most recently explored on the new Amazon streaming series Bosch. Now we get Secrets and Lies, a remake of an Australian miniseries and one of the duller entries into the field, despite some good moments and some decent performances.

Secrets and Lies opens on Ben Crawford (Ryan Phillippe) as he takes his morning jog through the rainy woods in his neighborhood. But today he's sprinting home, having just discovered the body of his neighbor's five-year-old son, Tom, on the running trail. Ben is immediately pegged as a suspect by Detective Cornell (Juliette Lewis), considering he left prints and fibers all over the boy's body when he tried resuscitation. Ben finds himself at the center of the investigation, with his entire life brought into question: the status of his marriage to Christy (Private Practice's KaDee Strickland); his whereabouts the night before the murder (apparently Ben was blackout drunk a few hours before his fateful, early-morning jog... which makes no sense to anyone who has ever been drunk); the relationship of his two daughters, teenage Natalie (Indiana Evans) and prepubescent Abby (Belle Shouse), to the deceased; and his history with the boy's mother (Natalie Martinez, Under the Dome).

In terms of what Secrets and Lies has going for it, high on the list is its appealing cast. Phillippe, who looks bizarrely still like himself but a little more plasticky, like he's wearing a mask of his own face from the late 1990s, is actually good as the harangued Everyman at the show's center. For a guy known more for his good looks than for his talent, Phillippe has grown immensely since his days in 54 and I Know What You Did Last Summer. He's not going to be accepting an Emmy or anything, but he doesn't embarrass himself either. And considering he has to play a good number of his scenes opposite Academy Award nominee Juliette Lewis, that's a win. Lewis plays against type here as the scowling, gruff detective trying to pin the murder on Ben. Her methods are questionable, and Lewis seems to relish in playing a character who really wants to take this guy down and to enjoy it (and the pilot episode's ending reveal will probably explain why she's not so keen on Ben).

The supporting characters are harder to get a handle on, which leads me into the other strength of Secrets and Lies: its perspective. Previously, shows of this kind (including all the ones listed above) were told primarily from the perspective of the police team investigating the murder. Here, everything is told from Ben's point of view. That lets the audience in to a new vantage point. This isn't just another cop show about a tough-as-nails female trying to find a child killer because she has issues about her own abilities to raise kids and be a good mother. No, this show has more of a soap opera feel as it follows the large assortment of neighborhood characters as the murder tears them apart by exposing their secrets (and lies). But while that's refreshing, it also, as I said, makes the supporting characters fall by the wayside. It's hard to identify or sympathize with Ben's wife because we only really get to see through Ben's eyes. We see how the accusations affect Ben's personal and professional lives, but we don't get to see how they affect Christy's, for example. It makes everyone but Ben seem shallow and flat by comparison.

Additionally, no matter how many small differences the show may have from its predecessors, it's still just not wholly interesting. The exposure of secret lives is old hat in mysteries, which leads to the inevitable red herrings (including Ben, himself) and the trying of the audience's patience as the killer's identity looms just out of sight. The original Secrets and Lies was only six episodes long, but Barbie Kligman (Private Practice, CSI: NY) has developed this version to be four episodes longer, so I imagine it will meander quite a bit, unless most of the character and story arcs have been changed completely. The writing isn't strong enough, the characters not defined well enough, to warrant such a long season. And coming so late in the "dead kid mystery" game, especially directly on the heels of Fox's epically disappointing Gracepoint, everything just feels overly familiar and predictable: the dark and gloomy atmosphere, the small town setting, the media firestorm, the checklist of obvious suspects. There's not enough originality or excitement in the show to make it truly stand apart, or to make it truly worthwhile for viewers.

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