Gorgeous people with terrible secrets. Sex and desire in a picturesque setting. An ominous flash-forward that raises more questions than answers. Based on a best-selling novel. Produced by that actor you like. Yes, Hulu’s new drama Tell Me Lies bears all the hallmarks of the similarly titled Big Little Lies, the mega-hit HBO drama that, I’m sorry, should have been a movie.
But that’s not TML’s problem. While BLL had one central mystery it teased out, painfully slowly, over the course of several repetitive episodes, only to reveal the most obvious culprits for the various crimes (including who bit Amabella—remember that?), a sin that also made Notes on a Scandal and The Undoing the bores they were, TML has a few intriguing balls in the air. There’s the cold college freshman Lucy (Grace Van Patten), whose father is dead and whose mother is guilty of some terrible sin; the boy she’s drawn to, Stephen DeMarco (Jackson White), who is secretly hooking up with his ex; Stephen’s best friend Wrigley (Spencer House), a football star with a knee injury he’s ignoring and a learning disability he’s hiding; and Wrigley’s brother Drew (Benjamin Wadsworth), who…okay, I’m getting into spoiler territory here, so only read on if you’re okay with that: Drew accidentally caused the crash that killed Macy (Lily McInerny), Lucy’s roommate, and we find out later that Stephen has some kind of past with her too. Sounds juicy, right? It should be. It is. Kinda.
The show opens at a wedding eight years after all these characters meet in college in 2007, which is when the majority of the show takes place. But at the rate the show takes us through time (about a week per episode), we won’t get to the wedding until all these actors are way too old for these parts. Secrets are revealed oh-so slowly, setting up for payoffs that take ages to come. And yes, there’s plenty of sex, and a lot of it’s pretty hot, and the show doesn’t take the clichéd needle-drop-and-cut-to-the-next-morning route…but it also has people wearing their clothes a lot of the time, which doesn’t seem realistic. I suspect that’s because the young cast didn’t want to be completely exposed again and again, a choice I fully respect, but herein lies the issue with this show: It’s trying to go there without actually going there, to borrow Degrassi’s catchphrase.
Instead of talking in snappy TV-speak, like the kids on The Sex Lives of College Girls, the characters here have naturalistic dialogue…but it’s also a little boring and forced, because of the amount of exposition they have to get out. People are constantly walking into each other’s rooms going, “I can’t believe you hooked up with him! What do you want to wear to the party tonight? I heard your ex is gonna be there.” (Paraphrasing, but barely.) The plot, too, is both too dramatic and not quite dramatic enough. Literally everyone has a shameful secret, yet all they ever do is sit around and talk. Either be Gossip Girl or be Normal People, but you can’t be both.
Also, I have to point out, I’m not much younger than these characters are supposed to be, and would it really have been such a big deal in 2007-ish for someone to admit to being dyslexic so he can get more time on tests? Wrigley’s learning disability is treated with the seriousness of a cancer diagnosis; his friends already give him crap for being “stupid.” I’m not sure what he has to lose by saying he needs extra time. A small gripe, but this plot line is given a weird amount of screen time in the episodes I watched. It’s just an example of the show telling us one thing while showing another.
And yet I found the show mostly compelling, slightly dragging episode run times aside. These are some ridiculously good-looking young people, and watching them put on little outfits to make eyes at each other is hard to resist. I don’t much care who is going to end up with who at the wedding, but I definitely want to know more about Macy’s death.
White, in particular, plays the role of toxic boyfriend Stephen with a self-assuredness that’s rare for teen shows, and watching him in scenes with his onscreen and real-life mom, Katey Sagal, is worth sticking around for. The only time I felt the show veer too far into “don’t do this” territory is when (more spoilers ahead), one of the young female characters is sexually violated in a way that, while realistic to what happens on college campuses, is painful to see play out in full. It’s perhaps too real, and makes the series heavy instead of thrilling, hard to watch instead of gripping. Others may feel differently; it’s not the worst portrayal of the subject, and some might relate in a cathartic way, but I’m personally looking to television for gripping storylines with a dose of escapism.
I hope the show gets a second season. There are so many series that really find their voice and tone in the second season (The Leftovers, The Americans, Parks and Rec, I could go on). Add a dash more banter and cut the episodes down to the standard 42 minutes and you’ve got the next big juicy drama. Big Little Lies was supposed to be a limited series, but it was so popular it got a second season, which went over like a lead balloon. There’s way more potential with Tell Me Lies. Even when it’s boring, it’s still good enough to keep rolling. Huh, just like sex.
Originally Appeared on Glamour