Recap video and review of Deception – Series Premiere
It would be kind of glib for me to call Deception a poor man’s Revenge, or even a poor man’s Pretty Little Liars, since NBC finished the fall in first place among adults age 18-49, meaning that this series, starring Meagan Good as an undercover cop investigating the death of her ex-best friend, would actually be the rich man’s version of either of those shows. Yet Deception is one of the dullest, most uninspired new series to come down the pike in the 2012-2013 TV season, a pale imitation of what series like Revenge and, yes, even Pretty Little Liars does so well. It tries to be more than a soap opera, yet it fails in every measurable respect, and it frankly doesn’t even do the soap opera aspects all that well. It should be a crime for a sudsy primetime soap to be so terminally dull, or to misuse actors as talented as Victor Garber, Meagan Good, and Tate Donovan this badly. Yet Deception seems to go out of its way to have nothing going for it beyond its slick, beautifully-filmed, well-cast appearances. Maybe the surface approach is meant to serve as a microcosm of the society world the show is trying to predict, but I don’t think the show is nearly that smart.
This is new for me, in a lot of ways. Though I’ve written negative reviews before, I think this is the first time a show has given me cause to get so vitriolic. And here’s the thing, the show isn’t entirely without redeeming factors. As mentioned, the show is handsomely-filmed, and filled with subtly luxurious sets and costumes. And I’ll never complain about having Meagan Good (here playing Detective Joanna Locasto) on my TV screen, or old favorite Victor Garber. They make the most of what little the script gives them. Even some of the periphery actors turn in fine performances, particularly Wes Brown as the brother of the deceased, with whom Meagan Good’s character is intimately familiar. He’s effortlessly charming, but has hints of a deeper desire to protect his family. It’s one of the few performances of the episode that feels substantial, even if it’s still a fairly flimsy character. And hey, the pilot has an eleventh hour twist that recontextualizes one of the big turning points in Joanna’s life. But none of these developments is enough to make me comfortable in recommending anyone check this out. It’s not even trainwreck bad. It’s just boring.
So let’s get down to what this show is actually about.
When partying socialite Vivian Bowers (Bree Williamson) is found dead from an all-too-convenient overdose, the police call on Vivian’s former friend, Detective Joanna Locasto (Meagan Good), to go undercover and infiltrate the Bowers family to ascertain the truth of what really happened. To this end, she adopts a cover story as an abused divorcee looking to start anew. Joanna’s mother had worked for the Bowers, and so they’d been like a second family to her before Joanna and Vivian had a falling out as teenagers. Though Joanna is initially reluctant to accept the assignment, proposed to her by her ex-boyfriend/ex-partner Will (Laz Alonso), she eventually accepts the offer out of what I can only surmise is a sense of loyalty to Vivian’s memory. What follows is a bit of table-setting for the series going forward. There’s the establishment of the Bowers family business, developing a cancer treatment drug that isn’t nearly as effective as the company wants people to believe. Then there’s the family itself: Vivian’s kind-hearted, widower father Robert (Victor Garber), his glowering second wife Sophia (Katherine LaNasa), and his offspring – the menacing eldest son Edward (Tate Donovan), young lothario Julian (Wes Brown), and snarky, bad-tempered youngest daughter Mia (Ella Rae Peck). Edward is such an ominous presence that he can’t possibly be anything more than a red herring. And Sophia seems to no other purpose than to be passive-aggressive, while Mia does little else but draw constant comparisons with the late Vivian, about whom we know next to nothing, and for whom we feel no sense of loss.
I drew comparisons earlier to Pretty Little Liars, and this is mostly because the show also employs a flashback structure that gives us a look into how Vivian was, in life, as an attempt to get us to identify with the victim in some way. This approach works on Pretty Little Liars because Ali was just a kid. However awful she was, there’s a tragedy inherent in such a young life being snuffed out, and that did much of the work in humanizing her, or at least making her death feel like something we should be sad about. This doesn’t work nearly as well for Deception, in large part because, by all accounts, Vivian wasn’t the most sympathetic figure, owing to constant drug abuse and run-ins with the law. While the flashbacks attempt to portray this as not being entirely her fault, given the experiences of her youth and the family influence, she got to live to adulthood and didn’t seem to make any meaningful attempt to better herself or at least eschew her irresponsible impulses. This is where knowing her before her death might have helped to give her death the gravity that it’s lacking, but since that isn’t possible, the flashbacks are all we’ve got – well, that and what she’s left behind, such as a little sister who’s exactly like her, which doesn’t speak well of her personality since the girl seems to hate everything and everyone (well, except Julian and her deceased sister).
The episode does at least attempt at weaving a tangible sense of danger by implying that Joanna is playing with fire, but that’s nothing we haven’t seen before. When a paparazzo discovers Joanna’s cover identity, they team up to uncover the mystery – until he’s murdered by mysterious forces, in one of the episode’s few genuine surprises, as I figured they were gearing him up to be the Nolan Ross to Joanna’s Emily Thorne. There’s also a bit of romance thrown in, with Joanna’s relationship with Will and her resurgent feelings for Julian, with whom she used to fool around in her teen years. These are all elements that a better show could use to craft a genuinely interesting narrative. Yet the story itself isn’t all that engaging. It’s a Law & Order murder plot stretched to a full series, and I’m not sure there’s enough material here to make it work. The FBI’s undercover sting is convoluted to begin with, but the family makes things worse by being so cartoonishly cliche in their menacing overtures to Joanna that it almost makes the sting operation sound like a good idea.
What’s unfortunate is that so much interesting material is left on the table. There isn’t much of an exploration into the differences in class that tend to populate dramas like this. When you have the moneyed elite embroiled in a murder investigation, it would add some layers and depth to see how wealth and privilege is contrasted with blue collar citizens. Of course, I say this yet the presence of the blue collar Porter family is the least compelling part of Revenge, so maybe the show is better off not addressing that element of the narrative. But even then, there’s the racial element that could have been explored, or even just hinted at in the pilot, in which an African-American woman is raised amid the specter of white privilege, returning under the guise of need, in order to gain acceptance into that world. Maybe in future episodes, the series will broach the subject. In a poorly-paced hour that plods along from one plot point to another without much momentum, that kind of subtext could help in a big way. It’s fun to imagine, at least, that the show will become a bit more self-aware of its own shortcomings. Because, really, that’s the biggest positive of the series, that there’s only room for improvement.
That said, I have no idea where that improvement will come from, or in what form. I genuinely have no idea how they’re going to keep this series going. Because, for a murder mystery involving rich, entitled jerks, there isn’t really much of a story here. At least not one that’s particularly compelling. It’s a well-dressed, handsomely-filmed series with talented, good-looking actors. But it’s all window-dressing for a series that’s so by-the-numbers that I just can’t recommend watching.