Secrets and Lies is so bad it is boring: stars cannot save ABC melodrama

Show features Ryan Phillippe and Juliette Lewis but bland storyline about the murder of a child is tawdry, dull and predictable

What’s the name of the show? Secrets and Lies

When does it premiere? The two-hour premiere airs Sunday 1 March at 9pm EST on ABC. There are eight episodes of the miniseries after that.

Wait, isn’t Secrets and Lies a Woody Allen movie? No, you’re thinking of the 1996 Mike Leigh drama about an adopted black woman who finds out that her birth mother is white. That was a good movie.

What is this show? Ben Crawford (Ryan Phillippe) finds the body of a six-year-old neighbour when out for a morning jog. When detective Andrea Cornell (Juliette Lewis) is assigned the case, he becomes the main suspect and, of course, his nice suburban life starts to unravel.

What is the show’s pedigree? Much like NBC’s The Slap, this is based on an Australian mini-series of the same name. Barbie Kligman, a veteran of Private Practice and CSI: NY, adapted it for American audiences.

What happens in the premiere? Not much, sadly. Ben finds the body and quickly becomes a suspect after detective Cornell finds out that his daughter Abby (Belle Shouse) babysat for the dead child and had a key to the house. Cornell pesters Ben to give a DNA sample and he says no, but after the press hounds him about it, he relents. Ben tries to console the boy’s mother Jess (Natalie Martinez), but she wants nothing to do with him. Then, at the end of the first hour, we find out our first big secret.

What is it? I can’t tell you, but you will have guessed it about halfway through the episode.

Is this show any good? Right now it seems like all the networks are trying to get into the prestige television game, taking a page from True Detective, Fargo and other one-and-done-type shows and adapting them to their more broad sensibility. NBC was first with The Slap; CBS is debuting Battle Creek (from Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan) on the same night as Secrets and Lies. Fox doesn’t enter the race until 14 May when it kicks off the M Night Shamalan series Wayward Pines (Juliette Lewis is in that one, too). Secrets and Lies is by far the worst of the bunch.

The only thing about Secrets and Lies that resembles the Emmy-bait it is aping is the movie-calibre stars (faded though they may be), and that there are only 10 episodes in a closed story. Otherwise this is just typical movie-of-the-week melodrama. Ben and his wife Cristy (KaDee Strickland) argue all the time. His kids are kind of ungrateful brats. There is something going on with his estranged brother; the autistic boy who lives in the neighborhood; and Ben’s neighbour who hates him. It’s all very standard, formulaic stuff.

Secrets and Lies doesn’t need to be some deep exegesis about human frailty or the way we live now. But it doesn’t impress on a plot level, either. The action just languishes. The title of the show promises us sordid details but instead it delivers pat answers that anyone can find in a pulp novel. It’s not even bad enough to be interesting, it’s just sort of blandly awful, lumbering toward some sort of conclusion that no one really cares about.

Which characters will you love? For some reason, Ben’s wife Cristy is strangely appealing. As is Jess, the mother of the dead child, who is all raw nerves and tears. They are about the only ones.

Which characters will you hate? It’s a toss-up between the two main characters, Ben and detective Cornell. Ben is just a simple sad-sack who doesn’t seem to register much emotion. His bland insistence that everything will turn out all right because he knows the truth belies the premise of the show entirely. You don’t root for him as much as tolerate him.

Cornell, on the other hand, is actively hateable. Lewis, a skilled and subtle actor in the right environment, plays her as a stone-faced savant who can’t even be bothered with niceties. She’s not haunted or determined in some intricate way, we just see her be an absolute jerk with no explanation whatsoever. No one would want to spend five minutes with either, still less an entire hour each week.

What’s the best thing about it? Let’s say that Ryan Phillippe has aged quite gracefully and is not afraid to appear in his underwear.

What’s the worst thing about it? I already know the ending. No, I haven’t figured out who the killer is yet (my money is on Ben’s younger daughter or the autistic boy) but whoever it is, it’ll try so hard to be a shocker that we’re all going to groan when we find out who it is. Needless to say, there will be a string of red herrings before we even get there. Not that I’ll be sticking around to find out.

Should you watch this show? No. You should not. Watch The Slap instead. It’s not the best thing on television right now, but if we’re going to reward networks making prestige television, at least we should watch one that is a bit more ambitious. Or better yet, if you want to watch an excellent show about how the death of a young boy affects a community, Broadchurch returns to BBC America on 5 March.


Brian Moylan

The GuardianTramp

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