'Secrets and Lies' on ABC fails to provide a reason to care

Mary McNamara
Contact ReporterLos Angeles Times Television Critic
TV review: 'Secrets and Lies' makes it hard to care about the mystery at center of show

In "Secrets and Lies," ABC's new limited series premiering Sunday, the killing of a young boy unhinges an already troubled family and turns an idyllic community into a suspicious mob, further riled by a predatory media and the icy relentlessness of an obsessive cop.

If you think you've seen this before, you absolutely have — most recently in "Gracepoint," Fox's regrettable remake of ITV's "Broadchurch," which ran last year on BBC America.

As luck would have it, "Broadchurch," which was also originally intended to be a limited series, returns to BBC America for a second season on Wednesday. Picking up in the weeks following the original mystery's solution, it strains credibility a bit at first before settling into a promising second story line involving main characters, Det. Inspector Alec Hardy (David Tennant) and Det. Sgt. Ellie Miller (Olivia Colman). There is, too, the added joy of Charlotte Rampling guest-starring as a kick-ass attorney.

It's difficult to imagine "Secrets and Lies" will be following a similar path. It's tough to not care about who would kill a 5-year-old and why, but "Secrets and Lies" doesn't make it easy to be concerned.

Adapted by Barbie Kligman from an Australian series of the same name, the story revolves, not around the family of little Tom Murphy, but the man who finds his body. Ben Crawford, who makes the discovery while out for a run in the woods, is a father himself, also a house painter and a good friend of Tom and his mother Jess (Natalie Martinez)

More important, Ben is played by Ryan Phillippe. According to the ABC website, seeing Phillippe every week is the No. 1 reason to watch "Secrets and Lies."

Although the network may be overestimating the number of people longing for such an opportunity, Phillippe is very much the center of the series, which quickly becomes more man-under-pressure tale than a murder mystery.

Most of that pressure comes from Det. Andrea Cornell, who is played by Juliette Lewis (the second reason to watch, according to ABC.) Cold and controlled to the point of robotic, Cornell does an eye-sweep of the Crawford home — someone has been sleeping on the sofa! — and concludes that Ben is, obviously, the killer.

Or at least so it seems. Perhaps she is a better detective or playing a longer game than appears to be the case in the two-hour premiere, directed by Charles McDougall, in which her treatment of Ben does, indeed, border on harassment. Before you can say "Nancy Grace," the vulpine media are camped out on the Crawford's (lovely) lawn, brandishing microphones, accusations and, eventually, leaked information.

Meanwhile, Ben, who has clearly not watched enough television, refuses to believe that he could be a suspect, ignores everything his family lawyer tells him and doesn't bother to consult a criminal attorney until the media have all but convicted him.

It's all quite ridiculous, clearly designed to make the same sort of point about the fragility of trust and community that "Broadchurch" did but in half the time and with none of that show's nuance, texture or grace. "Broadchurch" had its share of plot absurdities, but its exquisite portraiture of a town's grief and frustration more than made up for them.

Not the case, unfortunately, with "Secrets and Lies." With the exception of Lewis, who seems to embrace the single dimension of her character, the cast does its level best to make something of an overworked conceit. Phillippe is convincing as a man in shock, caused first by the killing and then by the ferocity with which everyone turns on him.

Unfortunately, although the form of "Secrets and Lies" is something relatively new, the execution is not. As with so many adaptations, "Secrets and Lies" suffers from an American tendency to speed up and overplay, to force emotion rather than evoke it.

Just as suspicion takes a little time to grow and spread, so does sophistication. But this series seems to be in a very big hurry to be over, which almost guarantees that audiences will be too.


'Secrets and Lies'

Where: ABC

When: 9 p.m. Sunday

Rating: TV-14-LV (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14 with advisories for coarse language and violence)

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times