At first blush, SundanceTV’s Liar looks like a number of gorgeously-filmed crime series that take place along moody British coastlines. For some of us, TV doesn’t get much better than that, and there’s a comforting expectation of crime and punishment that goes along with it. The series comes from Harry and Jack Williams, the brotherly duo behind such twisty thrillers as The Missing and One of Us. Liar is in the same vein, a show that begs to be binge-watched as it unravels its complicated narrative.
Like other recent UK crime series, the focus has shifted from murder to sexual assault. Broadchurch’s final season broached that topic (fairly well, for the most part), and it was also at the center of the emotional National Treasure — based loosely on true events. Liar starts out the same way, but instead of really honing in on the emotional fallout of the crime the way National Treasure in particular does, it only does so in part, and instead relies increasingly on unbelievable twists to augment a story that doesn’t need any more drama.
Liar stars Joanne Froggatt (Downtown Abbey) as a teacher, Laura, who goes on a date with the father of one of her students. Laura is coming off of an amicable divorce with her childhood friend Tom (a regrettably wooden Warren Brown), and leans on her sister Katy (Zoë Tapper) and her family for support. In accepting a date with the handsome surgeon Andrew (Ioan Gruffudd of Fantastic Four), who is a widower, we see both Laura and Andrew moving forward with their lives and taking a chance on a new relationship.
Almost immediately, though, something goes wrong. We don’t see the night in question until later, but we do see Laura waking up the next morning not remembering anything except pain and sickness. She believes Andrew drugged and raped her, and though she files a report, there is no evidence. From there, the series turns into a he said / she said, and plays upon viewer biases towards potential victim blaming. Andrew is portrayed as successful and charming (Gruffudd played Horatio Hornblower for goodness sake, he’s a hero!), while Laura’s memory is called into question, as she alludes to another allegation she once made and later retracted about sexual misconduct, worrying that she’ll be branded as a hysteric or an unstable woman — something Liar leans into in the early episodes, somewhat disturbingly.
Liar is a series that hinges on twists and surprises, none of which I will spoil. But though the show starts out as unveiling other lies and webs of deceit around Laura and Andrew as that crime is investigated, it suddenly pivots and reveals the truth, at which point the show takes on an entirely different tenor. It’s also here that it starts to lose its sense of self (and its sense), throwing in ancillary plotlines and dropping seemingly important arcs. And while the show does dip a toe into the role social media plays into a case like this, it doesn’t give it anything close to a full consideration. Despite the online allegations and initial arrest made against Andrew, the hospital doesn’t seem to make much mind of it as a PR nightmare, dismissing it as his “personal business.” Further, after something Laura says goes viral, there are no articles, Tweets, or media outlets clamoring for her to tell her story. It doesn’t ring very true.
Laura, who is disappointed by the police investigation, decides to go rogue in order to prove her truth, even though Andrew vehemently denies it. Both Froggatt and Gruffudd are fantastic here, deeply committed to the emotions of their characters, and fully believing in their version of events. Both feel broken and struggle to move on with their lives, but the show soon leaves behind the idea of their daily difficulties (like Laura returning to school with Andrew’s son in her class, or Andrew going to work with Laura’s sister) to instead focus on vigilantism and shoehorned melodrama that turns briefly into a horror movie.
One unusual hallmark of Liar is how often Laura and Andrew interact — on the phone and in person — after the alleged crime takes place. Yet it’s another missed opportunity to explore how one might have to deal with the proximity of a would-be assailant in such a close-knit community, especially as far as his son Luke is concerned (the show touches on this briefly, but abandons it just as fast). Instead, it becomes a cat and mouse game of often boneheaded moves that become more baffling and outrageous as the series continues, with little sense of motivation or development of its characters.
Much of this might have been forgiven if the 6-part series had wrapped up in a satisfying way, but it throws in a dunderheaded coda that suggests a potential Season 2 (the Williams did something similarly misguided at the end of The Missing’s first anthology season, leaving a mystery open that should not have been). It serves little purpose beyond being a ridiculous tease, one that trivializes any real sense of justice. The truth is, Liar is rich with potential but low on results.
Rating: ★★ Fair — A strong start that leads to a disappointing conclusion
Liar premieres September 27th on SundanceTV