There’s no shortage of crime dramas on television, and ABC has just thrown another one into the mix with Secrets and Lies. The heavily promoted series only premiered on March 1, but it’s already getting off to a rocky start. Though the two-hour debut episode earned modest ratings, it failed to live up to the hype for critics, who found it to be bland, clichéd, and an all-around lackluster entry into an overcrowded genre.
Secrets and Lies, adapted from an Australian series of the same name, has plenty of appealing factors going for it on paper. The limited series features a high-profile ensemble cast, led by Ryan Phillippe and Juliette Lewis, and follows an intriguing (if not exactly original) premise: A family man, Ben Crawford (Phillippe), becomes the prime suspect in the murder of a young boy. The crime — and Crawford’s possible involvement — throws his already troubled family and the entire town into chaos and suspicion, which is only fueled by the media and one particularly obsessive detective (Lewis).
With a strong cast and the promise of a twisty plotline right there in the title, it’s hard not to be at least a little intrigued, especially since the network made sure to play up these elements in the lead-up to the series premiere. Ratings-wise, this method worked fairly well. The Secrets and Lies debut came in second in the 9 p.m. block, with 5.83 million viewers and a 1.5 key demo rating. In its second hour, the episode maintained a 1.5 but ticked up to 6.06 million viewers. By any standards, those numbers signify a decent launch for the 10-part series. But given the harsh critical response the show got, keeping or building upon those ratings might prove to be a tougher feat than expected.
Where exactly does the show go wrong? The critical consensus is — to put it quite simply — it’s just too familiar. From the suburbanite father-turned-potential murderer character to the dead- child premise to the theme of the flimsiness of trust, you’ve seen it all before, and you’ve probably seen it done better. As the Los Angeles Times puts it, “‘Secrets and Lies’ is like ‘Broadchurch,’ only without the nuance, texture or grace.” Meanwhile, Deadline sums up the show with the conclusion, “There’s not much there.”
It’s not a surprising criticism, given the plethora of crime dramas available on the small screen these days. From The Killing and Gracepoint to True Detective and Top of the Lake, viewers have had more than their fair share of small-town murder mysteries lately. ABC itself even has American Crime, another limited-run crime drama, scheduled to premiere on March 5, just days after the Secrets and Lies premiere.
With so many options to choose from, any show within this genre has to either be truly twisty or superbly well-acted to have a chance at standing out. The problem with Secrets and Lies is that it falls short on both fronts. Phillippe lends convincing emotion as a man under pressure, but only just enough. Meanwhile, Lewis’s performance has been surprisingly far more disappointing. “Ms. Lewis’s dour detective character, Andrea Cornell, is a cliché stretched beyond the point of believability,” The New York Times says.
As for the supposed twists and turns? With so many familiar tropes thrown in, the show doesn’t live up to its name. Even The Hollywood Reporter, which deemed the series “a strong and welcome effort,” eventually concluded that “another eight episodes will twist this story in various directions (though if I had to guess, I’d say I already know who the killer is).”
Whether Secrets and Lies will improve over the rest of its limited run remains to be seen, but the truth is, it’s facing an uphill battle. Even if the story eventually starts to surprise, it seems viewers may finally be reaching their limit when it comes to TV murder mysteries.