Channel Ten needs viewers. Badly. In 2013, they finished fourth in the ratings behind Seven, Nine and Australia’s public broadcaster, the ABC. Secrets and Lies is their attempt to create a “Television Event” in order to bring in viewers. The idea is that viewers will want to know “whodunit”, and if they don’t want to be spoiled, they’ll have to watch. A website has also been launched with clues and extra webisodes to try and involve the audience more. We won’t know how successful this will be until we see the ratings for Monday night, but I didn’t see any live-tweets in my Twitter feed. Ten’s invested a lot of money and Olympics advertising space into this show. I love crime novels, so I was always going to watch this show. I first became interested however, when I learned that it had already been picked up by ABC in the United States before production had even begun.
The premise of the show is that Ben Gundelach has gone out for a morning jog and finds the body of a young boy. The episode opens after Ben has found the body, and he’s running back to his house so he can call the police. The rest of the episode focuses on his family as the police begin their investigation and the media camp outside his house. His older daughter babysat the boy and is being cyber-bullied, and the younger daughter is just generally upset. As the investigation continues, Ben (as the only suspect) and his wife Christina start facing financial difficulties as they face employment problems. There also may be a strain on their marriage – there was a scene where Ben was talking to his friend who lives in the shed in the backyard, but I couldn’t understand what he was saying. And a neighbour lady, Christina seems like she’s interested in Ben. Jess, the dead boy’s mother said at the end of the episode that she doesn’t think Ben killed her son and she knows who did.
I really want to like this show, but this episode had some problems. It wasn’t so bad that I’ve refused to watch another episode, unlike the pilot for The Following, but if it doesn’t get better, I don’t know how long I’ll stick with it. Sometimes when things aren’t working, it’s difficult to tell whether the acting or the writing is the problem. There was one scene however, where the dialogue was so atrocious that I actually typed it up so I could put it here:
Lawyer: They want a DNA sample.
Lawyer: Do you want to give one?
Ben: I dunno.
I don’t even know what to say about that. Let’s move on.
I tweeted while I was watching this that I can’t help but compare this show to Broadchurch. The writers said that like Broadchurch they want to show the effect that the murder of a child can have on a community, but focus on the families more than the detectives. This makes me wonder if they’d seen Broadchurch, because it was definitely about the Latimer family and the small town in which they lived. It’s possible that what the writers meant is that they weren’t as concerned with the detectives’ lives as those in the community, which I can understand. In Broadchurch however, the detectives were integral to the show, because Olivia Coleman’s son was best friends with Danny. There are other reasons that the lives of the detectives were important to what happened in the show, but I’m not going to spoil them.
The writers’ decision to not include the perspective of the police could be detrimental to the show, but that is something we’ll have to wait for. The way tonight’s story unfolded, Ben was the target of the police investigation. Which makes sense; he was the person who found the body, and since the police are at the beginning of their investigation, he’s going to be questioned. Logically, all of that makes sense. The problem was the way it was portrayed: because the police were focusing their investigation on Ben, and Ben was understandably under a lot of pressure, it looked like they were targeting him, for a lack of a better word. I don’t know if it was intentional, but because the whole episode focused on Ben’s perspective, the police definitely came off as antagonists. The whole ordeal was made worse by the stupid DNA plotline, where Ben’s lawyer tried to stall the DNA test, and the media who were parked outside the Gundelach’s house started asking Ben why he refused to give a sample, which really upset Ben’s younger daughter, who must be about 10. The resolution? Ben got back in his car and gave a sample. At this stage we also have no idea whether or not Ben had a motive, so it’s entirely possible that he’s the murderer (which is what they want, but if they want us to suspect him, there has to be some sort of motive).
Another problem with the premiere is that it opened with the discovery of the body. Even though this episode focused on Ben’s family, none of the characters had been established before the murder, so the audience only learns about the relationships after the event has happened. What was the status quo before the murder? What is Vanessa’s interest in Ben? Did the conversation between Ben and his friend at the river mean that Ben and his Christina are getting divorced? If they are, their marriage seems to be quite healthy. Why was Ben upset that Christina called Malcolm? For a while I didn’t even know who Malcolm was. I found out three minutes later that he’s the girls’ uncle. I still don’t know if he’s Ben or Christina’s brother. The show is called Secrets and Lies, so it makes sense that they’ll keep things from us and they’ll be big reveals designed to shock us. But at least give us something in the first episode other than the dead boy’s mother saying “I know who did it”. It’s hard to be interested in the show if they a) don’t give you any interesting information, and b) you’re trying to figure out the relationships between all the characters so you can’t focus on what’s happening. The reason you need a status quo is so that you can tell whether what happens subsequently is something that had been set in motion before murder, or the result of it. Jess also doesn’t say a line until the end of the episode, so we have no idea what’s going on with the person who has been emotionally affected by her son’s murder the most.
There’s also currently a lack of suspects outside of Ben. This mirrors a police investigation – suspects are cleared and then they find new ones – but in order to hook viewers and get them to the website where they can try and solve the mystery, you need to have more than one suspect. I really want to like this show, so I’m going to keep watching it for the time being, if for nothing else than I really like trying to solve mysteries.
- The score also took me out of the show. My notes said that it was overbearing and I was too aware of it. It was also the only thing that was used to set the mood/tone of the show. It’s going for something dark.
- I got distracted at one point trying to find out if Phoebe Tonkin and Claire Tonkin are related. Once I realised that I wasn’t paying attention, I stopped my internet search. Google isn’t being very helpful.
- I found it really weird that people weren’t having drastic emotional reactions. Ben has two daughters. One is young enough that she really just wants to enjoy Christmas but old enough that the constant media presence is upsetting her (she may also be too young to know how to react to something like this). The older daughter is seventeen, and was the boy’s babysitter, which should elicit some sort of reaction other than being sullen and leaving the dinner table. That is definitely something a teenager would do, but I would have been much more upset at that age. I understand that Jess didn’t want to leave her house because of the media presence, but if we had seen more of her and the way she was dealing with her son’s murder, this aspect of the show would have been better.
- During the Olympics, the advertising for this show was non-stop. There were different “whodunit” type ads for three different characters/suspects: “The Jogger”, aka Ben; “The Babysitter”, who is Ben’s teenage daughter (I can’t remember her name); and “The Mother”. The website lists about 16 different suspects, so who knows where it’s going from here.
- Speaking of the new website, new clues went live at the end of the episode if people are interested.
- Story-wise, I’m comparing this a lot to Broadchurch, but it’s obvious that the effect Ten wants this show to have is similar to that of 24 or Lost.