Peacock’s new teen drama-thriller has promise but needs to shake its devotion to the source material’s pacing.
There has been something of a teen thriller renaissance of late. Shows like Cruel Summer, The Wilds, Panic, and Outer Banks have mined the teen streaming audience to deliver stories that all had at least something about them worth watching. Joining the fold this week is Peacock’s One of Us Is Lying, an adaptation of the Karen McManus book of the same name.
In Bayview High, all students are equally fascinated by and terrified to show up in the gossip text blasts of Simon (Mark McKenna). Drawn as deeply unpleasant, McKenna makes it clear how loathing—self and otherwise—motivates much of Simon’s actions despite his high-minded rhetoric about hypocrisy and class struggle. As a viewer, you’ll be ambivalent when he abruptly dies during detention. Yes, he gave the opening episode a nasty bite, but, oof, is he difficult to stand.
Witnessing his demise, and ultimately helpless to stop it, are Cooper (Chibuikem Uche), our closest athlete archetype, Bronwyn (Marianly Tejada), smart but under so much pressure top of class achiever, Nate (Cooper van Grootel), the bad boy with a wounded soul, and Addy (Annalisa Cochrane) the cheerleader raised by mom to see attention as love and love as her only path to being whole. Each seems to fit the description of one of the blind items he teased at the start of the school day. Each denies it. However, when it turns out Simon’s demise couldn’t have been accidental, all four become immediate lead suspects.
The good news for fans of the book is that showrunner Darío Madrona has guided Lying to stay reasonably faithful to the novel—at least in the three episodes provided to critics. There are tweaks here or there but, for the most part, what you read is what you’ll get.
This has its benefits and its drawbacks. It’s always good that a series resembles its source material. However, what works on the page isn’t necessarily what works on a TV screen. What feels like constant heating to a boil plotting in novel form doesn’t come across here. It isn’t boring, per se, but instead of unbearably intense, the first three episodes feel almost, well, gentle.
In a visual medium like TV, you need to see the tension. You can’t read characters’ minds like you can in a book. Our four leads are experts in emotion regulation and secret hiding. As a result, they come across as restrained and slow to act on-screen.
Restraint…bog[s] [One of Us Is Lying] down in the first three episodes.
A show can do fine with one taciturn lead. However, when all four are white-knuckling it in a way we can’t see, you start to feel frozen out as a viewer. The show needs to get in their heads without the benefit of black text on a white page and it just hasn’t found it yet. Three episodes in, only Addy seems to be shaking loose of her tightly coiled existence.
Instead, much of the emotional juice comes from the show’s supporting behaviors. McKenna, as noted previously, has an undeniable energy. It’s a lot to take in the first episode, but his subsequent appearances in flashbacks feel a bit easier to deal with, even as he remains unapologetically malicious. Janae (Jessica McLeod), Simon’s one true friend, has a sort of burn it down attitude that has her seemingly angry with everyone from the quartet to Simon’s family to Simon himself.
The favorite, though, is Bronwyn’s younger sister Maeve (Melissa Collazo), a cancer survivor who is just as intelligent but lots more fun than her older sibling. There’s a slyness to Collazo’s performance that still leaves room for emotional authenticity. It’s a mature but age-appropriate to the character piece of acting. Her riff on funeral food alone elevates the second episode.
Lying has moments of visual playfulness, too, although they come too rarely. For example, as the teacher overseeing detention assigns an essay that sounds suspiciously close to the one from The Breakfast Club, the camera moves back slowly to reveal a room that very much resembles the library from that same movie. Homages like that add an unobtrusive flourish that enlivens the often too-serious proceedings.
Ultimately, by sending out three episodes instead of one or four, I think Peacock has done itself a disservice. One would’ve been enough to convey the premise and let us see the promise of the cast. The fourth episode seems poised to be a dam breaker, especially with Cochrane giving the increasingly emotionally exposed Addy a sense of healthy unraveling. However, cutting off at three gives us all set up, no catharsis.
As it stands, One of Us Is Lying has potential and good actors. Restraint, however, continues to bog it down in the first three episodes. It is understood the characters are fighting like hell to keep their secrets hidden. However, it’d be nice if at least the audience could be let in a bit more.
One of Us Is Lying is telling secrets now on Peacock.