As some good TV series like “How To Get Away With Murder” and “State of Affairs” have wrapped up for the season, a few new promising new ones have come along, and one of these is “Secrets and Lies,” which made its debut last weekend. This is a 10-episode series starring Ryan Phillippe and Juliette Lewis, and it’s based upon the Australian series of the same name.
“Secrets and Lies” is set in a closely knit North Carolina neighborhood, where housepainter Ben Howard (Phillippe) lives with his wife, Christy (KaDee Strickland), and their two daughters, Natalie (Indiana Evans) and Abby (Belle Shouse). One morning while he is jogging through the woods near his home, Ben discovers the body of Tom Murphy, a 5-year-old boy who lived across the street from him. He immediately rushes home and dutifully calls the police. And his life is never the same!
Among the police officers who show up at Ben’s house is Det. Andrea Cornell (Lewis), and it’s obvious from the time she meets Ben that she thinks he’s the murderer. Now what is both interesting and strange about this is that Ben really gives her no reason to suspect him. He’s fully cooperative and answers all of her questions, but she really continues to badger him and treat him like the sole suspect in the crime.
As if things weren’t bad enough for poor Ben, it soon becomes obvious that he and his wife are in the throes of serious marital troubles. At first we just gets hints of this here and there, but we finally find out what is going on when a big surprise is revealed late in the show. This shocker throws an entirely new light on the investigation, and makes watching future episodes impossible (at least for me) to resist.
While the probe into the murder continues, the predictable media feeding frenzy ensues at Ben’s house, and suddenly it seems as if almost everyone in the neighborhood thinks he killed the little boy who lived across the street. And there’s also an aura of mystery surrounding the boy’s mother, Jess (Natalie Martinez), but I’m not going to say anything else about that.
The first two episodes in the series effectively introduce the major characters in drama, and they leave us wanting to know more about them; this is especially true of Ben and his wife and the victim’s mother. The first episode moves a bit slowly at times, but I think this is by design so that we can get all the characters straight.
The dynamics between Ben and Christy are fascinating because in the very first scene Ben has found Tom’s body, and he sprints home to call the police. When he bursts into the house to tell Christy what happened, she seems to be coldly aloof toward him, and this establishes an aura of mystery about her. You would think that she would display more emotion toward the situation than she does.
But for me biggest mystery to emerge early in the series is the character of Det. Cornell, who comes across as the meanest woman on the planet. From the time makes her first appearance, it is obvious that something really has soured her on life, and I hope we find out more about her personal life as the series continues. Lewis really succeeds in making her character extremely dislikable, and you get the idea that she would have no compunction about torturing her own grandmother if it would further an investigation. Despite the fact that she looks as she eats a bowl of nails in milk for breakfast, she is a fascinating character, and in an online interview with Yahoo TV the talented actress spoke candidly about her role.
“It’s a trip for me, because I have never done anything like this, never played a character that shows absolutely nothing of herself. When you sign on to a TV show, you only get to see one script usually, so I had a lot of conversations with the creator of the show, Barbie Klingman, because she was the one who held all the answers to who this character is. Not all detectives are the same — some play bad cop, some are awkward, some are funny. Cornell is not the sassy lady cop, and that was very deliberate. You certainly do not want to get on her bad side. She’s very cerebral, methodical, obsessive, and really dedicated to work, which is something that I really respect, actually, very pragmatic, and idiosyncratic in the way she thinks about things. She’s a character that — What’s that metaphor? — holds her cards close to her chest.
“Except for social niceties, I don’t think she smiles the whole time. In detective land, you have to deal with a lot of intense emotions, so you yourself have to remain mostly unemotional and detached. These are people, like law enforcement and surgeons, in professions that don’t have the luxury of being able to be emotional or to break down. In my line of work, it’s almost a requirement. But it would ruin their ability to do their job.”
In the same interview Lewis also explained her major difficulty in portraying Cornell.
“Not smiling. I am the complete opposite of Cornell. I wear my heart on my sleeve. I have no poker face. When we finished, I actually thought, ‘Thank God, I can smile again.’ But it was absolutely true to the character and the profession. The detectives I spent time with and interviewed for research had some social graces to get people to talk and to gain trust and information. They use human interaction in a manipulative and calculated fashion to further investigations and find killers. So all of my scenes where I’m asking questions, I’m pretending to listen and be nice. They’re not real social interactions for her.”
That Lewis is able to play a part so diametrically opposed to her own personality is a testament to her skill as an actress because she really comes across as a no-nonsense hard ass.
Phillippe faced a different challenge in his portrayal of Ben, a guy who discovers to his horror that trying to do the right thing completely backfires on him. During a recent interview with reporters at the Television Critics Association, Phillippe described his role as “exhausting” and went to explain why.
“This was a completely different work experience because it’s a forced-perspective show; it’s all from my character’s point of view, which is exhausting. There are no days off and no scenes off, so in that regard it was a completely different experience.
“I felt very much in the throes of the material throughout the experience. I mean, every day I was playing a guy whose life was falling apart, who was being accused, who was being slandered — so much negativity in the material. There were things about that I think I would take home with me. But I knew that before I signed on that that would be a part of it. It seemed like an enormous workload from day one, and it was.”
“Secrets and Lies,” which airs Sundays at 9 p.m. on ABC, really sucked me in, and I’m eager to see how the characters continue to develop and how the whole drama plays out. In one of her many interviews about the series Lewis said we definitely will find out who the killer is, and she also said that if the series is renewed, her character will be the only one carried over. I love good mysteries, and this one is exceptional enough to earn the final score of solid eight. Is Ben a murderer? I can’t wait to find out.