Like NBC’s The Slap, ABC’s Secrets & Lies is based on an Australian miniseries whose American adaptation seems to be missing something in translation. It’s not quiet as egregious, though, as Fox’s Gracepoint, which was a much less compelling, shot-for-shot remake of the UK’s Broadchurch (yet another crime series revolving around a child’s death). But while the impulse to make these crime miniseries — which likely have come from the success of True Detective‘s engrossing and finite storytelling — is admirable, the results aren’t quite up to par.
Secrets & Lies revolves around the mysterious death of a young boy, whose body is found early one morning by a close neighbor, Ben Crawford (Ryan Phillippe), out for a jog. But Ben’s attempts to resuscitate the child and alert the police end up making him less of a Good Samaritan, and more of a prime suspect.
Like Broadchurch and its ilk, Secrets & Lies uses a murder to begin a slow deconstruction of the lives of everyone connected to the victim. Shaky marriages, fights, affairs, and everything else all start to be revealed through the investigation, led here by a single-minded Detective Andrea Cornell (Juliette Lewis), whose steely gaze and silent observations the camera follows a little too closely (and obviously).
One of the things that made Broadchurch so compelling was the strength of its acting, which really spoke to the horror and emotional depths of what happens when a child is murdered. Secrets & Lies, though, chooses to focus more on the twists and turns rather than any real emotion. In fact, one of its most distracting factors is the fact that no one, particularly the child’s mother Jess Mullen (Natalie Martinez), seems to really grieve (the same is true of Ben’s wife and oldest daughter, who are shown and described again and again as being really close with the Mullens, yet appear genuinely unaffected by the tragedy).
There are a lot of things about Secrets & Lies‘ world, though, that don’t make much sense. One question mark (at least for me personally) is that despite the series’ location of Charlotte, North Carolina, not a single person has even a lilt of a Southern accent. On the other hand, being sheltered from a parade of bad attempts at a North Carolina drawl might be seen as a blessing. (Though we miss out on the joy of Southern lawyers).
What’s good about Secrets & Lies, though, is Phillippe, who gives the series some much needed weight and emotion. He also makes it easy for viewers to presume his innocence, while also feeling his despair over some of the facts of the story that are quickly spiraling out of his control. The evidence doesn’t look good, but Ben’s Everyman archetype actually produces real stakes when it comes to the idea of being hounded (by the police, by journalists, by your community) for a crime you (maybe) didn’t commit.
ABC’s decision to air two episodes of the eventual ten for the show’s premiere is smart, because there is a certain lure to the “whoddunnit” aspect. Cornell’s dogged pursuit of Ben as the killer borders on harassment, though her stalking him plays out more as camp than anything. It all feels like a witch hunt, but there’s still a tinge of doubt to what Ben says happened the night of the murder.
Those looking for a closed-ended crime series that, despite its other flaws, might cause one to get swept up by its mystery, will find something of value in Secrets & Lies (particularly as Ben takes it upon himself to do some investigating). Still, seasoned crime show fans may find it too predictable, and lacking depth. Though its limited format and calibre of talent — at least in its leading role — are steps in the right direction when it comes to a desire for the broadcasts to try something cable-esque, it would be a lie to say that ABC has found the secret to that formula yet.
Rating: ★★ Fair — Only for the dedicated
Secrets & Lies premieres Sunday, March 1st at 9 p.m. on ABC.