'Game of Silence': TV Review

Bob Mahoney/NBC
Two-thirds of the title, but not the quality, of 'Game of Thrones.'
4/12/2016

NBC's new revenge drama offers secrets and lies, but very little compelling mystery.

In a recent critical conversation, Tim Goodman and I discussed our respective policies when it comes to screener-viewing for shows we're reviewing and my own principle of watching every available episode.

Principle broken.

NBC's Game of Silence has a sneak preview on Tuesday night after The Voice before moving to its regular Thursday 10 p.m. slot and the network sent critics nine episodes for the heavily serialized drama. I watched seven episodes, which seemed like a pretty fair commitment, before I'd seen enough to decide that even though I admired a few things about Game of Silence, I had little investment or interest in the climactic unveiling of any of its countless secrets and lies, nor was there any chance that any sort of grand reveal could change my opinion either for better or for worse.

Most viewers won't be that generous.

Based on the Turkish format Suskunlar, but having more in common with the 1996 Barry Levinson film Sleepers, Game of Silence was adapted by David Hudgins and focuses on four small-town Texas friends who, after an unfortunate accident, were sentenced to nine months in juvie in 1988. Nine months doesn't sound like that much, but it was enough time for some horrible stuff to happen. Decades later, Jackson (David Lyons) has escaped to Houston and a career as a top-tier lawyer, but he's pulled back into his childhood nightmares when old buddy Boots (Derek Phillips) has a violent run-in with an old adversary and Shawn (Larenz Tate) and Gil (Michael Raymond-James) decide the time is right for revenge. The targets from their past torment include the cartoonishly nefarious warden (Conor O'Farrell), now engaged in a congressional campaign that's getting an unrealistic amount of media attention, and his street-level muscle (Demetrius Grosse). Also becoming involved are the gal from their childhood (Bre Blair's Jessie) and Jackson's co-worker/fiancee, Marina (Claire van der Boom), who knows nothing of Jackson's troubles but is about to learn everything in the most cumbersomely revealing way possible.

Game of Silence is the kind of secret-keeping mystery show where characters tell other people maybe one-third of the truth and people keep saying, "So now do I know everything?" and the characters keep saying, "Yes," even though we know that by the next episode they'll be forced to backtrack. An absurd percentage of the show is dedicated to people saying things or doing things with the assumption that they won't get caught, even after three or four episodes pass and any reasonable person would have learned the lesson that the truth will out.

It'd be much more efficient for characters to respond to interrogation with the stalling tactic, "Wait a few minutes, I've got a flashback to explain that," because Game of Silence is also the kind of show where characters keep going to familiar places and then staring off into space for flashbacks or where characters reference a long-forgotten name and then stare off into space for another flashback.

Game of Silence is a show that's almost nonstop plot, but it's plagued by inconsistency that makes nearly every beat clunkier than it needs to be. Even characters with the same amount of knowledge talk obliquely about "what happened to us," because perish the thought of a direct conversation. Characters are always either ignoring their cellphones at exactly the moment answering could prevent disaster or responding to vague texts or messages with an urgency guaranteed to gin up urgency. Characters are always either proving their dexterity with Google, something too many shows ignore, or willfully pretending that other characters lack the same Google powers that they possess and will never catch on to their very public identities and associations. After the third person from Jackson's blue-collar past surprised him in his tony law offices, I badly wanted Jackson to call a meeting in the conference room, spill his guts and effectively end the series.

Everybody in that conference room would have to sit very close to Jackson, because Lyons' primary acting mode here is whispery intensity, which is a nice cover for the Aussie NBC favorite's disinterest in a Texas accent. There's a consistent accent-free approach from the main cast, so then whenever a day player comes in with a Southern accent, it's a reminder that they're in Georgia, which is pretending to be Texas and that becomes a rabbit hole that's safer not to go down, since otherwise most of the performances are fine. Raymond-James, eternally in my good graces from Terriers, does frayed-around-the-edged terrifically, though the scripts' understanding of Gil's internal logic is stuck on, "What's the dumbest, most self-destructive thing Gil could do?" The show starts with Shawn as the group's badly written confirmed bachelor, but Tate quickly engenders some sympathy for the character, even when he gets ensnared in the show's silly take on the drug trade.

The women are less well served. Because Jackson's lying to Marina from the beginning, the show invariably feels like it's treating her as a chump and she never recovers and van der Boom is powerless. And Jessie's the sort of loosely sketched female character who alternates between obligatory placement in a chemistry-free love triangle and amateur gumshoe work that nobody thinks is a good idea that exists only to put her in jeopardy, giving Blair little to do.

There are strange and unexpected moments in which Game of Silence meanders in the direction of nuance, but it rarely commits. Gosse's Terry has a story in the present that makes him look like a verging-on-stereotypical Stringer Bell-style gentleman gangster and he's mostly sharing scenes with O'Farrell's way-too-one-dimensional warden, but he also gets flashbacks and a complicated relationship with his brother (Chuma Gault) that elevate the performance and the character. As the detective investigating the show's infighting incident, Deidrie Henry sometimes has an interesting set of secrets and lies of her own, but then sometimes gets forgotten entirely. There are also fleeting moments when the series has a genuine interest in the prison industrial complex and how the juvenile detention system fails kids and turns them into far worse adult offenders, but most of the show looks back with a sub-Stephen King mixture of nightmare and nostalgia.

OK performances, glimpses of depth and the ever-looming unknown keep Game of Silence watchable for a bit, but if your show is all-mystery-all-the-time, the number of episodes I'm willing to watch without any threat of getting hooked is apparently seven, not nine. I believe the first season is 10 episodes. Oh well.

Cast: David Lyons, Larenz Tate, Michael Raymond-James, Bre Blair, Conor O'Farrell
Developed by: David Hudgins
Airs: Thursdays, 10 p.m. ET/PT (NBC)

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