Amazon Prime’s latest series tries for gritty crime thriller, but ends up in unintentional camp territory.
I am a great lover of camp media. I love the over-the-top, the ridiculous, the melodramatic, and the ostentatious. I love storytelling that delves so far into the extremes of the human experience that it departs from reality altogether. Unfortunately, camp can backfire, and when it doesn’t work, it can become so ridiculous that it’s hard to watch.
At first glance, Amazon Prime’s latest series, Tell Me Your Secrets, doesn’t match this description. Series creator Harriet Warner has written a crime thriller that explores the darker side of human nature. It’s a show full of seedy characters doing seamy things in towns with even seamier underbellies, with a gritty aesthetic to match. On the surface, this should be the type of prestige drama you’d expect from a major streaming service, yet somehow it’s one of the silliest shows I’ve seen in a long time.
Part of the silliness is due to the high concept nature of the premise, which focuses on Emma Hall (Lily Rabe), a woman who is looking for a fresh start in the witness protection program. In her former life, she was Karen Miller (for clarity’s sake, I will call her Emma throughout the rest of the review), the girlfriend of the infamous serial killer Christopher “Kit” Parker (Xavier Samuel). The world is convinced that Karen was aware of Kit’s murderous ways, but due to some soap opera-worthy amnesia, she can’t remember a thing. Her psychiatrist Peter (Enrique Murciano) thinks that she may be able to unlock her repressed memories, so he offers to let her live in his cabin near St. James Louisiana, and in return, she will work with him on rediscovering her past.
Unbeknownst to Emma, Mary Barlow (Amy Brenneman), whose daughter was one of Kit’s victims, is also trying to discover Emma’s past. Mary believes that her daughter is still alive and that Emma knows more than she’s saying. Desperate for answers, she hires supposedly reformed serial rapist John Tyler (Hamish Linklater) to track Emma down. However, while John is reluctant at first, his hunt for Emma begins leading him into old habits, and he soon becomes a force beyond Mary’s control.
As a concept, the story is fine- compelling even. However, in practice, the plot is convoluted and bloated. Seven and a half hours is a lot of time, but with three main storylines and several subplots, it makes it hard for every aspect to be fully fleshed out. As such, some relationships and motivations feel rushed. This is most noticeable with Rose Lord (Chiara Aurelia), the teen queen of St. James, who becomes infatuated with Emma despite the fact that in the first episode Emma smashes Rose’s face into a mirror. This is partially justified by the fact that Emma stands up to Rose’s somewhat abusive mother, but for the most part, it’s a relationship that doesn’t make much sense because there isn’t enough time for a natural progression.
Why did Emma smash Rose’s face into a mirror? It was because Rose was bullying a foster teen, Jess (Emyri Crutchfield) and this triggered Emma’s wrath. After this, Jess quickly befriends Emma, only to wind up missing. This leads to a mystery that promises to be tantalizing but isn’t really explored.
Tell Me Your Secrets is packed full of great ideas and storylines, but not enough time to give them the attention they deserve.
This lack of exploration of Jess’s disappearance is indicative of the show’s fatal flaw. Tell Me Your Secrets is packed full of great ideas and storylines, but not enough time to give them the attention they deserve. As such, the potentially nuanced story is flattened out, and the show just becomes a series of melodramatic set pieces that don’t coalesce into a whole until the final episode.
But while the plot doesn’t live up to its own promise, the cast delivers a hint of how good this show could have been. Rabe shines as Emma, managing to juggle the mix of vulnerability and tenacity required of the role. The only thing she can’t pull off convincingly is an obvious brunette wig she wears in her flashback scenes.
As antagonists, Brenneman and Linklater are terrifying in the most realistic ways. Brenneman’s performance is like a tempest trapped behind glass. Mary may seem convivial at first, but behind every interaction is a barely contained rage that is desperate to be released. Linklater expertly handles John’s transition from an unwilling participant to a dangerous predator so seamlessly that it will make you afraid to trust a stranger again.
While these great performances are mostly due to great actors, Warner did give them some tantalizing parts to work with. Although the plot can often strain your suspension of disbelief, the characters are always anchored in reality. Emma is a woman who has suffered great trauma; unsure of what happened but determined to protect those she can in atonement of her past. Mary is so engrossed in her own pain that she cloaks herself in a self-righteous tunnel vision, willfully ignoring how she hurts others to get what she wants- until it bites her in the ass. While John may have been repentant at the start of the series, it’s obvious that the joy he gets from manipulating people to gain power over them is too great for him to ignore once he’s given a chance to do so.
In the end, it’s the strength of the cast that makes me willing to come back to the series if it gets the second season implied by the finale. While the sprawling and unfocused nature of the first season often made it a bit of a slog to get through, these disparate threads finally wove together in the season finale, and it’s possible that if the show continues it could be something worth watching. So maybe like Emma, Tell Me Your Secrets deserves a second chance despite its less than stellar beginning. If nothing else, I hope the second season delivers just the right amount of camp.
Tell me Your Secrets is currently streaming on Amazon Prime Video.