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Typically, it probably wouldn’t be a good thing that, after five hourlong episodes — halfway into the season! — I still don’t quite know what to make of Stephen (Jackson White), the male lead of Hulu’s Tell Me Lies. Here, though, it’s just proof the show is working exactly as intended.
Whenever he starts to tiptoe toward full-on villainy, the series will grant him a heartbreaking reveal or a moment of genuine sweetness; whenever he threatens to seem too likable, it’ll drop in a casual reminder of how breathtakingly callous he can be. The push-pull puts us more or less in the same shoes as protagonist Lucy (Grace Van Patten), who spends years wriggling on his hook before she’s finally able to cut herself free — and it’s that keen understanding of the psychology driving its central relationship that distinguishes Tell Me Lies from any number of dramas about steamy but doomed romances.
Tell Me Lies
Cast: Grace Van Patten, Jackson White, Catherine Missal, Spencer House, Sonia Mena, Branden Cook, Benjamin Wadsworth, Alicia Crowder
Creator: Meaghan Oppenheimer
Created by Meaghan Oppenheimer and based on the novel by Carola Lovering, Tell Me Lies starts dropping hints straightaway about where Lucy and Stephen’s affair is headed. Its premiere (directed by Jonathan Levine) opens in 2015, eight years into a dynamic that’s become so toxic, Lucy’s own friends doubt her ability to keep from “going down the whole Stephen rabbit hole” on another couple’s big day — and if Lucy and Stephen’s faces when they catch sight of each other across the lawn are any indication, it seems unlikely they’ll be able to resist falling back into old patterns for very long.
Having offered us a glimpse of Stephen and Lucy’s future, however, the series takes its sweet time bringing us back there. The story begins in earnest on Lucy’s first day at Baird College in 2007, during which upperclassman Stephen negs her at a frat party, setting the scene for years of queasiness to come. By the midpoint of the season, we’ve only reached their Christmas break. More impatient viewers might be caught off guard and go running to Lovering’s book in search of answers. But though the early episodes do contain some major bombshells (including a sudden death), Oppenheimer largely takes a frog-in-boiling-water approach to the rotten romance at the show’s core. The noxiousness increases by increments barely noticeable until it’s too late.
The subtlety is made possible by performances dialed in to the character’s idiosyncratic, often contradictory natures. White has the flashier role as Stephen and the slippery intensity to back it up, but Van Patten’s combination of insecurity and self-determination makes Lucy the true linchpin of the series. Around them, the show builds out a cast who similarly refuse to be reduced to easy archetypes. Lucy’s attention may be consumed by Stephen, but her fast friendships with hallmates Pippa (Sonia Mena) and Bree (Catherine Missal) prove intoxicating in their own right. Meanwhile, even the ditziest of Stephen’s friends — hard-partying jock Wrigley (Spencer House) — gets a showcase chapter that frames him in a poignant new light.
If there’s a drawback to the show’s holistic view of its characters, it’s that some subplots lay fallow for hours at a time — occasionally, for so long we’ve half-forgotten them by the time they pop back up again. I’d not remembered, for instance, that earlier hours had teased Stephen’s family drama until his mom appears in chapter five. Then again, it’s hard to complain too much about a setup that eventually pays off with a tremendous, and tremendously sad, performance by a redacted-for-spoilers actor as Stephen’s mother.
The show’s sharpest portrait of all may be of the culture surrounding all these characters. As it turns out, the show’s 2007 setting is reflected in more than the ubiquitous BlackBerrys, Ugg boots and indie-rock needle drops. Tell Me Lies takes on the era’s heterosexual hookup culture, armed with both an intimate understanding of its specifics and the greater wisdom of time. Through Lucy, Pippa and Bree’s criss-crossing journeys, the series captures both how exhilarating or downright liberating no-strings-attached sex could be for young women, but also how cold and oppressive the de rigueur insistence on keeping it casual could be.
The dialogue isn’t always subtle about what it’s doing, and some of the foreshadowing might as well be spelled out in neon: “Some day some guy’s gonna get so far under your skin, he’s gonna rot there,” a character tells Lucy in the premiere, thus spelling out the entire premise of the series. But it’s more than balanced out by the writers’ knack for exchanges that pin down a certain spirit or expectation in a few words. “Isn’t that exhausting?” Bree asks Pippa in response to a rant about the importance of pretending not to give a shit about the guys they’re screwing. “It is,” Pippa admits. “But that’s just the way it is.”
It’s in that context that Lucy and Stephen’s affair takes root, and the story Tell Me Lies tells is one of a young woman without the experience or awareness to realize how the cards are stacked against her, and a young man who knows exactly how to play them. As with all games, it can look pretty fun. Even Stephen’s meanest barbs at his ex, Diana (Alicia Crowder), can be and often are twisted into a spiky form of foreplay. Tell Me Lies‘ marketing promises a super-horny drama, and it delivers on the fantasy of conventionally attractive hardbodies throwing themselves at each other in carefully choreographed dances of flattering semi-nudity. The sex may not always be great — sometimes, with more clueless lovers, it looks downright cringey — but Girls‘ warts-and-all verisimilitude, this isn’t.
And yet, the ambivalence woven into the fabric of Tell Me Lies keeps it from embracing full-on soapiness. Tell Me Lies is too nuanced for soapboxing and too empathetic for hand-wringing. At the same time, it’s also clear-eyed about the ugly attitudes giving cover to these relationships, the personal decisions or shortcomings that allow them to flower, and the damage they leave behind. It’s a guilty pleasure in the truest sense — one whose juicy delights are tempered with enough sharp reality to make it stick, just a little, in the throat.
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