Television is oversaturated with murder mysteries, one of the more popular forms of programming in recent years. To break through and find an audience or critical acclaim—as Pivot’s engrossing Fortitude already has this year—a series must offer an engaging and distinctive way to explore such well-trod ground. With a title as generic as Secrets And Lies, it would be easy to dismiss ABC’s latest entry in the “murder in a small town” subgenre, but by shifting its perspective from the investigators—the traditional leads in stories like these—to one of the townspeople, the series breathes some life into a tired premise.
Adapted from an Australian series of the same name, Secrets And Lies follows suburbanite Ben Crawford (Ryan Phillippe) as his life turns upside down after he discovers the body of his young neighbor, Tom. Ben quickly becomes a person of interest in the investigation, and when the case becomes national news, he must work to protect his family and save his struggling marriage.
One of the biggest strengths of the series is how quickly it backs away from its title: There are surprisingly few secrets in Secrets And Lies, and even fewer lies. Rather than following Juliette Lewis’ taciturn Detective Andrea Cornell as she ferrets out the secrets lurking beneath the setting’s seemingly idyllic facade or splitting the perspective to include the entire town, the story stays with Ben, a pleasantly normal husband and father. Phillippe is a solid lead, selling the wronged-man element of the narrative and making Ben a relatable, if bland, protagonist. There’s a trustworthiness to his confusion—a clear sense that he’s in over his head—which allows the audience to root for him without worrying the writers will try to pull a fast one and eventually reveal him as the killer. Ben may have secrets, but they’re secrets from the audience, not necessarily from his wife or friends, and this is a significant distinction.
Lewis spends much of her time scowling, but given Detective Cornell’s read of Ben and the situation, it’s understandable. She has no interest in making friends or coddling suspects, a refreshingly straightforward approach to this type of character. Since Cornell only appears when she seeks Ben out, or vice versa, there’s little opportunity for her to relax and show her non-professional side. Ben’s best friend and current guest-house crasher, Dave (Dan Fogler), on the other hand, knows no other way, and the scenes between him and Ben are the series’ most laid-back. Fogler proved his dramatic chops during his season-one arc on Hannibal, and while early on he is little more than an exposition machine, he’s at least a charming one, and it’s likely Dave’s significance will grow before the end of the season. The Crawford family also has an easy and strong chemistry throughout, and Ben’s scenes with his daughters (Indiana Evans and Belle Shouse) are particularly effective.
Perhaps the most encouraging element of Secrets And Lies is its length: The series has a 10-episode order, which may be significantly longer than the six-episode Australian original, but is still succinct for an American network show. This should be enough time for the series to fully explore the premise without getting bogged down or resorting to stalling tactics to avoid revealing the perpetrator. The show isn’t afraid to churn through plot, doling out surprises almost immediately, but particularly significant revelations are given the weight they deserve.
The visuals lack the stylish flair of the aforementioned Fortitude, but keeping the series grounded in the mundane lowers the overall stakes. Secrets And Lies may not reach the heights of its chilly, Pivot-broadcast spiritual sister, but it’s far more likely to come away with a satisfying and logical solution. Those tired of murder mysteries will find little here to pique their interest, but for fans of the genre (or Phillippe), there’s plenty to like, making for engaging, if not appointment, viewing.