With the benefit of hindsight, all “Secrets and Lies” really offered – in a strange subgenre of drama built around a murdered child – was a shift in perspective, by putting the focus squarely on the wrongly accused as opposed to the cops. That wrinkle, and the casting of Ryan Phillippe as the Everyman at its center, provided the distinguishing element in the ABC limited series that concluded Sunday, which, as U.S. versions of such programs go, can derive at best modest satisfaction from being better than “Gracepoint,” Fox’s slightly tweaked stab at “Broadchurch.”
Beyond that, the finale (and SPOILER ALERT if you haven’t watched) yielded the same killer as the Australian series upon which it was based, with the main character’s 12-year-old daughter (Belle Shouse) having slain what turned out to be her half-brother. That revelation followed the perhaps inevitable parade of red herrings, which left nearly every significant cast member – including Phillippe’s Ben Crawford, given that he was drugged and couldn’t fully account for his actions at first – a suspect at one moment or another.
The program also ended on an unnecessarily cryptic note, seeking to drive viewers to ABC’s Website for an additional twist, offering a more coherent sense of closure. Frankly, the net effect of that flourish was a momentary doubt that this was, in fact, the finale – an all-the-more-irritating stunt, given that the program’s future remains very much up in the air.
It’s too bad, since “Secrets and Lies” exhibited moments of promise, especially in the early going as it captured how the media jackals descended on Ben and his family. After that, though, the series became increasingly overheated (a fairly common criticism among ABC dramas), with Ben turning into a junior detective in his efforts to exonerate himself, largely because the detective who fielded the case, Andrea Cornell (Juliette Lewis), had fixated on him as the killer.
Cornell achieved a measure of redemption toward the end, identifying (if not revealing) the true killer in the penultimate episode. Still, the notion of the girl being a sort-of “bad seed” didn’t feel particularly convincing, and made Ben’s sacrifice – motivated by guilt regarding how his extramarital affair had upset the family – feel questionable, even beyond the moral ambiguity the ending (on TV, anyway) was intended to evoke.
Mostly, “Secrets and Lies” feels like the too-flawed execution of a good idea, an experiment that didn’t quite pan out, exploring a murder mystery that lacked the weight for an open-ended commitment. (TNT’s “Murder in the First” would be another example, and ran into some of the same challenges over its first season.)
Such series don’t have to be wrapped up in a bow to be satisfying, but they do lose goodwill if they feel as if they’ve been trifling with the audience’s time. Granted, the title is “Secrets and Lies,” and there were both in the finishing hour. Yet if the ultimate referendum on an exercise like this is how enthusiastic you’d be to revisit the format, for a series that began with an early-morning run, about the best this ABC drama could do was stumble across the finish line.