HBO’s The Undoing was a fun limited series. It wasn’t great, but it was passably intriguing and one of those series that found its main selling point in damn fine performances from the upper crust of talent, including a villainous turn by Hugh Grant, a nuanced portrayal from Nicole Kidman, and a nefarious twirl from Donald Sutherland’s mustache. Then there was an unassuming-yet-commanding performance by Lily Rabe. She portrayed Sylvia, the best friend of Kidman’s Grace, and let’s just say that Sylvia was a surprise ace-in-the-hole for nearly every character who wasn’t a murderer. Rabe did an excellent job of keeping the audience guessing about her character’s motives, and she pulls off a similar trick in Amazon Prime’s new crime thriller series.
Tell Me Your Secrets has more in common with The Undoing that is immediately evident. And whereas latter was exquisitely shot, casting a seductive sheen over any plot holes that persisted. Whereas the former show kind-of revels in letting those holes all hang out. It’s a seriously messy series — so chaotic and unyielding that one almost admires all of the excessive effort — yet it doesn’t have the A-list selling power of the former series. Both shows swan dive into soap operative excess, but whereas The Undoing was forgiven for most of its sins, Tell Me Your Secrets won’t receive the same deference. And that’s a shame because this show would likely be embraced if its leading trio — played almost too well by Rabe, Hamish Linklater, and Amy Brenneman — could also distract from its (abundant) flaws by, you know, zooming in on Nicole Kidman’s scene-stealing eyeballs to communicate shock and fear in a Hitchcockian way.
Look, I probably shouldn’t be fixating upon The Undoing while reviewing another show, but it’s a recent show that gathered a lot of social media attention, and our current situation has led to fewer TV shows being churned out, so I suspect that a lot of people could use a similar trash-thriller fix. And a lot of people who applauded Lily Rabe as Sylvia will want to watch her in another show. So, relevant comparisons will be made to with this series, which undoubtedly arrives with a lesser pedigree (no David E. Kelley in the producer’s seat, and no source material on bookstore shelves to add additional contest). Also, it’s stunning how both shows lean into their shortcomings in different ways, and only one was destined to emerge with critical acclaim.
Essentially, we’ve got three characters with murky and troubling past lives. Rabe stars as Emma, who’s cast from the same mold as the antihero ladies of Gillian Flynn’s Dark Places and Sharp Edges. Emma’s in the witness protection program due to her status as the ex-girlfriend of a serial killer, and trouble follows her everywhere. A lot of that trouble sources from Brenneman’s Mary, the mother of one of the killer’s victims, and she wants to track down Emma, so she hires Linklater’s character, John, who’s a former serial predator who’s gone cold turkey from his old ways and appears to want redemption. Or does he? Essentially, these are three very f*cked up people, and while one is very easy to judge (John being a serial rapist does not bode well, and fortunately, the show does not attempt to frame him in an empathetic light), and the story’s somewhat predictable, the show’s still a decent watch for the performances of all involved.
To put it bluntly, Tell Me Your Secrets is a binge that won’t waste your time if you love trashy psychological thrillers, even if it’s fighting an uphill battle without the same degree of stellar production values and names that sound impressive. There are no multi-million dollar Manhattan flats to make us appreciate how much the lead characters have to lose as a result of a grisly crime that’s ultimately shot in an arty way. Instead, the newer show embraces the down-and-dirty reality of witness-protection life, which appears to be a discombobulating space in this show. Emma’s isolated from anyone she previously knew, and she’s dependent upon a shifty shrink (Enrique Murciano), who was key to springing her from prison. Trusting anyone appears to be a bad idea, and every main player starts to look like a suspect at some point.
The less said about how the principal cast maneuvers through their respective environments the better. I will say that the show’s setup is intriguing, and man, the atmosphere is an ominous one. At one point, Emma is literally wading through a swamp while attempting to evade what’s sure looking like a serial killer. Also, the show certainly doesn’t pretend to be high art, and it’s almost campy in moments, like when choosing to put the worst wig ever on Lily Rabe to separate her current and former lives.
The wig is bad, yes. It’s still easy enough to hang with this series to watch the mystery unfold. Is this a great story that will be remembered? Not even close, but Tell Me Your Secrets is a more than passable bingewatching candidate.
Amazon Prime’s ‘Tell Me Your Secrets’ streams on February 19.