'Liar': TV Review

A cat-and-mouse game where both animals are too dumb to merit our interest.

'Downton Abbey' star Joanne Froggatt returns to the small screen as a sexual assault victim in this six-part miniseries airing on Sundance TV.

How many ways can a crime procedural go wrong? The counting gets distracting with Sundance TV's Liar, a Scottish-set miniseries about sexual assault whose good intentions are sunk by ludicrous reveals and ultimately self-diminishing storytelling.

The six-part revenge drama begins as an unpromising — and, in the era of believing women, unappealing — tale of Rape Rashomon. She (Joanne Froggatt) says she asked him to stop and was pushed onto the bed; he (Ioan Gruffudd) says he never heard her say no and that she didn't budge, let alone run away, when he went into another room to retrieve a condom. She doesn't remember all the details from that night, but she's positive she was violated. Liar leaves open the possibility that she's wrong during its first half, largely to illustrate how devastating it is to be falsely accused of rape, especially on a forum as omnipresent and anonymous as social media.

It's a testament to Liar's reliance on cheap tension that the miniseries withholds the truth about that night for as long as it does to assert a parallel between the dual nightmare of being sexually assaulted and then disbelieved and the agony of enjoying a perfectly nice first date with a stranger and then being accused of rape the morning after. (Statistics bear out that the former is exponentially more prevalent than the latter.) Created by Harry and Jack Williams, Liar shares with the brothers' earlier series, The Missing, the distinction of fusing elegant anguish porn with a byzantine mystery.

One of the perpetual criticisms about depictions of sexual assault in pop culture is the disinterest in the profound after-effects of such intimate violence. Liar is in many ways an earnest answer to those complaints. We see Froggatt's Laura suffering depression and PTSD, as well as impotent rage when she hits the wall of police unhelpfulness. Most compellingly, Laura's far from a perfect victim. When the detectives (Shelley Conn and Danny Webb) assigned to her case work too slowly for her liking, Laura sneaks into Andrew's (Gruffudd) house to search for anything that might be used against him.

Perhaps just as damningly, at least in the eyes of potential jurors, she's accused another man of sexual misconduct before. Her fanaticism for bringing Andrew down accelerates quickly, eventually resulting in her looking like a sociopath. But in a country where only 5% of reported rapes end in a conviction (a figure higher than the 2% here in the U.S.), maybe a woman has to go a little crazy to get the justice she deserves.

That's the interpretation that gives Liar the benefit of the doubt, anyway. The less generous take is that Laura's written as something of a sympathetic but unhinged moron whose anger blinds her to some gaping holes in her logic and planning. Among the two, one emerges as a monster — but behaves so life-ruiningly carelessly you'd expect to see them on a 2003 Fox special called The World's Dumbest Criminals.

If the criminal elements of the miniseries are dispiriting, the normal-life scenes that are supposed to ground the drama aren't much better. The setup that Laura is the English teacher of Andrew's teenage son (Jamie Flatters) feels wholly contrived, even in the small-town setting, and their forced interactions after Laura's online accusation goes viral add little to our understanding of either character's development. A subplot about the adulterous affair between Laura's ex (Warren Brown) and her married sister (Zoe Tapper) feels likewise unnecessary, except to gin up more suspense around a secret whose ramifications are scarcely explored thereafter.

Neither consistently responsible nor transportingly engrossing, Liar ends up undermining its admirable aims with a series of preposterous twists and characterizations. Flailing crusades like Laura's are seldom so intensely felt — or so groan-inducingly disappointing.

Cast: Joanne Froggatt, Ioan Gruffudd, Zoe Tapper, Warren Brown, Jamie Flatters
Creators: Harry and Jack Williams
Premieres: Wednesday, 10 p.m. ET/PT (Sundance TV)