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Peacock’s One of Us Is Lying is a little bit Breakfast Club, a little bit Gossip Girl, a little bit Pretty Little Liars, and a whole lot aware that it’s building on the tropes and stereotypes that came long before it — characters regularly name-check other shows, movies and genres, including horror and true crime. But acknowledging the clichés it’s trafficking in isn’t the same thing as transcending them, and the result of all this mixing and matching is a teen murder mystery series that’s consistently watchable but never quite great.
Based on the book by Karen McManus, the drama begins on the first day of school with a tantalizing post on About THAT — a blog spilling all the school’s dirtiest secrets, run by misanthropic outcast Simon (Mark McKenna) — promising imminent reveals on four unnamed students. Before Simon can deliver, however, he winds up in detention. And before detention is over, he’s dead of an allergic reaction, in what appears to the cops to be a homicide.
One of Us Is Lying
Airdate: Thursday, Oct. 7
Cast: Annalisa Cochrane, Chibuikem Uche, Marianly Tejada, Cooper van Grootel, Barrett Carnahan, Mark McKenna, Melissa Collazo, Jessica McLeod
Executive producers: Darío Madrona, Erica Saleh, John Sacchi, Matt Groesch
Based on the book by: Karen McManus
Suspicion quickly falls on the four students who were with him when he died — each of whom harbors a secret with the potential to derail their future, and each of whom had reason to fear they were about to be exposed in Simon’s next missive. There’s Bronwyn (Marianly Tejada), the straight-A student who may not be as squeaky-clean as she seems; Cooper (Chibuikem Uche), the star baseball player still in the closet; Addy (Annalisa Cochrane), the cheerleader cheating on her long-term boyfriend; and Nate (Cooper van Grootel), the small-time drug dealer whose next offense could land him in prison.
For all the splashy intrigue suggested by that premise, One of Us Is Lying‘s secret weapon is a more subtle one. Showrunner Darío Madrona (Elite) has a confident grasp on the murder mystery’s pacing, doling out twists and clues at a steady enough clip to keep a viewer’s attention from ever wandering too far — but slowly enough that each new reveal has time to sink in. The biggest bombshells (usually in the form of a new About THAT post from whatever anonymous creeper has taken over the account since Simon’s passing) are deployed with restraint, and tend to scramble the playing board at precisely the moment we or the characters are on the verge of getting too comfortable.
Meanwhile, the ever-shifting friendships, feuds and romances among the various characters lean into the teen drama truism that no one in high school is exactly the social stereotype they seem to be. Predictably, the four survivors find themselves forced together by Simon’s death, and, predictably, they come to understand one another even better, in some ways, than their own friends and family do. The show’s most touching scenes tend to embrace these cross-clique connections: Addy teasing Nate about his obvious puppy-dog crush on Bronwyn, or Cooper starting to warm to Nate after realizing their home lives aren’t as different as they’d assumed.
And yet what eludes One of Us Is Lying is some special spark to set it apart from all the other murder mysteries and teen dramas out there — some subversion or deepening of the formulas it’s trafficking in, some jagged edges to break up all its slick competence. In the first episode, Simon groans that Bayview High is a total cliché: “It’s like everyone’s here to audition for the reboot of a John Hughes movie.” After the first three episodes sent to critics (out of eight total), the series has yet to shake that feeling. The characters still feel more like archetypes than living, breathing people. If there’s any profound insight to be found in Simon’s death or everything that’s come after, the series has yet to tip its hand as to what it might be.
The show is pitched almost constantly at a sour, dour mood, with few moments of either levity or raw pain. (One unexpectedly adorable exception is Nate’s occasional conversations with his pet iguana. More of that, please.) The colors are pretty but muted, as if they’ve been put through a particularly aggressive Instagram filter, and the performances are similarly restrained. These artistic choices lend One of Us Is Lying an artificiality that, to be fair, seems fitting for a show about people trying desperately to tamp down unsavory truths about themselves. But they also keep the show’s emotions at arm’s length.
This lack isn’t insurmountable. With everything the show does have going for it, One of Us Is Lying slides neatly into that category of streaming shows you might binge over a weekend without really meaning to. The story moves forward at a painless pace, and the characters are easy enough to like, if not really interesting enough to love. But without any notable quirks or deep insights (or, really, even a single character who’s fun to hate or exciting to crush on), it’s also a show that seems likely to disappear from memory as soon as that binge is over. Maybe Nate, Cooper, Bronwyn and Addy really do have hidden depths. But the show they’re on is all smooth, glossy surface.
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