Most stories set in college are designed to push you in one of two directions: idealizing or mortifying. Either they make you pine for a life of cafeteria tables and late-night dorm room chats or they quickly train you to have a stomach-seeking feeling at the mere sight of a brick building lecture hall. The new Hulu series “Tell Me Lies” doesn’t spend much time in a classroom, but its romantic drama/mystery hybrid approach keeps it in a curious middle zone between rosy optimism and overwhelming dread.
The show begins well after graduation, with Lucy (Grace Van Patten) prepping for a rehearsal dinner where she’ll reunite with a bunch of her friends from during (and presumably after) college years. At the reception, when she locks eyes with ex Stephen (Jackson White), the show hops back in time to look at the tangled web of crushes, hookups, and mistakes that made a shadow this group of friends is still living under 15 years later.
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That flashback framing also introduces Lucy’s freshman dorm neighbors Pippa (Sonia Mena) and Bree (Catherine Missal) and a handful of Stephen’s campus big shot buds, including Wrigley (Spencer House) and Evan (Branden Cook). The series’ opening episode lines each one of them up in a neat maze of new friendships as they all use that opening-weeks bonding time to become fast confidantes and potential partners.
Lucy and Stephen’s chance meeting at a party sets the groundwork for a relationship that seesaws between passionate and toxic. They’re physically compatible (the show doesn’t shy away from how different partners communicate in the bedroom or the bathroom or wherever their desires take them over the edge) and they come from less-than-idyllic home environments. “Tell Me Lies” shows how they almost work too well together, learning how to explain away and hide small mysteries from each other. There are bigger, more consequential secrets set to rock the lives of them and their friends as the series goes on, but “Tell Me Lies” shows how that process begins with tiny cover-ups and spirals out to ones that lead to decades-long regrets.
In those opening five episodes made available to press before the premiere, “Tell Me Lies” isn’t a show that’s going to be confused for an in-depth examination of college life circa 2007. Some characters might trade messages on Blackberry phones or walk around while MGMT and Tune-Yards play in the background, but “Tell Me Lies” isn’t so much invested in living inside a flashback as much as laying the groundwork for a friend group mystery that plays out some time in the eventual future. Jonathan Levine and the rest of the series’ directors help put the tiniest hint of gloss on those memories, a stylistic choice that takes on a bit of irony whenever things for any of these characters turn sour in a hurry.
Though that college-era sheen might seem familiar at first (hinting at the kind of show that might anonymously work its way into the top spot of the Netflix Top 10 despite zero marketing), its protagonist does a lot to set it apart. Lucy is not a wide-eyed freshman optimist, and that storytelling decision is no accident. (Early on, one of her quick college friends proclaims that Lucy isn’t really a “feelings girl.”) That reserved, unshowy approach from a central character could lead easily lead to something stagnant, especially with something so slice-of-freshman-life. But Van Patten (and White) find different ways to fuel the show’s fire. There’s a momentum to the two of them, even if their conversations are often a thicket of sweet sentiments mixed with quiet passive aggression.
As the subject of Lucy’s lingering obsession, Stephen is the show’s biggest enigma. Showrunner Meaghan Oppenheimer and White help locate a very specific portrait of a liar as a young man. The ability for him to project empathy and for anyone watching to never be 100% sure whether it’s genuine or a put-on makes for a central dynamic that’s both fascinating and intentionally frustrating. White doesn’t lean into making Stephen a faultless hunk, yet Stephen has a specific set of skills that let him get away with a lot more than he should. Some of the best moments in the season’s first half are seeing him realize in real time that his usual tricks are failing him. Like pretty much everyone else in this main group, he’s forced to contend directly with the parts of himself that he despises.
Oppenheimer, in adapting Carola Lovering’s novel, takes most of the developments in Lucy and Bree and Pippa and Wrigley’s lives and filters them through a friend group. Not only does that sync up with a distinctly college-age impulse to get immediate feedback on everything from frat party hookups to classroom questions to communication stagnation, it works as a kind of alibi primer. Knowing that at least one secret is set to detonate within this friend group, these opening episodes show you how each of these characters take in information, respond to it, and in some cases use it for manipulative purposes.
The main thing hamstringing “Tell Me Lies” and keeping it tantalizingly removed from greatness in its first half is that it all feels a little contained. The show plays neatly in a cause-effect box, where in the wide world of college life, everything significant in these people’s lives is reduced to an inner circle of a half-dozen people. Everything bad or terrible or surprising or wonderful emanates from that core group. That might be true to some college experiences, but given the massive life-changing drama lurking right around the corner for everyone involved, there’s part of “Tell Me Lies” that comes across as a little tidy. Lucy and Stephen’s respective mom troubles, the fateful accident that kicks off some nasty ripple effects, a handful of visual hints to the unexpected ways some of these people are connected: There’s a little room for a bit more messiness.
“Tell Me Lies” is at its strongest when it hones in on the thrill and danger of new passions in a new environment. It moves at the pace of a bygone supersized network season, not rushed to hop between major milestones in a campus year and instead living inside the gradual build of new relationships that could be great or terrible (or both). Despite those strengths, there’s the lingering anxiety that comes with knowing the bigger little lies for this show are still around the corner. Even with that uncertainty still to come, the opening half of “Tell Me Lies” is a sturdy foundation.
The first three episodes of “Tell Me Lies” are now available to stream on Hulu. New episodes will be available on Wednesdays.
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