Here’s a recipe. Take a subpar episode of “Law and Order,” expand it to 10 hours by filling it with air like they do with cheap ice cream, add in a bunch of very-guilty-looking and suspiciously not-guilty-looking suspects, doll up the production with extra location shooting, deliver abundant close-ups of soap-opera-ish faces and Ryan Phillippe’s gym body, allow the actors to take super-sized dramatic pauses and utter emotionally wrought sighs, and voila: You will have “Secrets and Lies,” a new ABC limited series.
“Secrets and Lies,” which premieres with two episodes on Sunday at 9 p.m., is a boilerplate network TV murder mystery. You will spend the show’s 10 episodes “liking” one suspect, and then another, and then yet another, until, finally, you will learn the identity of the real killer — which will be just around the time that you’ve become bitter about being jerked around so much and don’t truly care whodunit anymore. The writers will lead you on and mislead you on, deploying false clues and red herrings until you feel as though you’ve been playing a game of Clue with a serial cheater.
Not all twisty crime series that focus on one murder or disappearance per season, like “Secrets and Lies,” are destined to disappoint, of course. Recently, we’ve seen the genre flourish with shows such as “The Fall,” “The Killing,” “True Detective,” “Top of the Lake,” and “Broadchurch,” which returns for a second season next week. As these dramas have given us cops in search of killers, they’ve simultaneously explored the human side of the story — the grief of the survivors, the impact of homicide on the town, the nature of the murderer’s psychosis, the motivations of the detectives. They’ve remade the whodunit into something more meaningful and haunting than just a collection of crime clichés built around a murder.
Based on an Australian show, “Secrets and Lies” doesn’t bother much with deepening the characters. As it pushes forward with the familiar game of alibis and accusations, it pales next to the better examples of its genre. Phillippe plays the generic Ben Crawford, a house painter who has a troubled marriage to Christy (KaDee Strickland). Out jogging one morning, he finds the body of a 5-year-old boy named Tom who lives across the street from him. Ultra-driven homicide detective Andrea Cornell, played with a small range of inscrutable expressions by Juliette Lewis, instantly zeroes in on him, sure he’s the guy.
As the story expands to include Tom’s mother, Ben’s hard-drinking and woman-obsessed pal, and a pack of bloodthirsty reporters who stalk Ben, none of the characters is much more than a chess piece being moved around a board by the writers. They have secrets, they tell lies, and they serve the deceits of the plot. I didn’t much care about any of them, but simply because the show is built around the death of a child — the go-to crime drama plot of the moment — I felt as if the writers were assuming I would.
“Secrets and Lies” isn’t sloppy, based on the first two hours; it’s well-organized enough, and decently shot. But it promises to be a hollow exercise signifying nothing much.Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.