There has been a resurgence of a TV genre Lifetime perfected decades ago: the pulpy crime thriller. But now these series and their terrible wigs are ending up on more “prestigious” networks with recognizable names attached, masquerading as something more elevated. Shows like HBO’s The Undoing and now Amazon’s Tell Me Your Secrets are ultimately just beach reads translated into TV (Netflix is also full of them as well under the “crime” category.) Frankly, I don’t really care what they’re called, I’m just happy to see them back in all of their cockamamie glory.
Tell Me Your Secrets, created and written by Harriet Warner, was originally developed for TNT and filmed pre-COVID, before TNT changed directions and dropped it (I don’t know why, this show would have been perfect for them); Amazon picked it up instead. The 10-episode series, which will now air as a binge-watch, stars Lily Rabe, Amy Brenneman, and Hamish Linklater as three troubled individuals brought together because of a series of previous crimes. It’s messy, intriguing, ridiculous, and fully addictive.
Rabe is the anchor point of the series as Karen Miller, a woman on the run from her past. Her ex-boyfriend, Kit Parker (Xavier Samuel), is in jail for the brutal murders of nine women, and everyone believes she helped him do it. But Karen has been suffering from blackouts that keep her from knowing the truth of her part in Kit’s plans, something she is working to uncover. After serving her own time in jail, she’s released into witness protection as “Emma Hall” under the care of a psychiatrist, Peter Guillory (Enrique Murciano), who helps set her up in the Louisiana bayou town of St. James. There, despite being told to not get close to anyone, she strikes up an unexpected friendship of sorts with a scared young girl, Jess (Emyri Crutchfield), who lives at a local group home—and who then disappears almost immediately.
Karen is being pursued, meanwhile, by Mary Barlow (Brenneman), a mother who believes she knows the truth about her missing daughter Theresa (Stella Baker). Though Kit didn’t claim her as one of his victims, Mary is dogged in her belief that there is a connection—so much so that she, in a totally unhinged move, hires an ex-con serial rapist (!), John Tyler (Hamish Linklater), to help her track Karen down.
This all happens in the first episode, and just spirals out from there. The mire in which these characters find themselves grows ever wider and more harrowing, and Tell Me Your Secrets does a good job of keeping things twisty. Though it does lag in the middle episodes (it could have likely been several episodes shorter), the pace picks up in a chaotic finale that clearly sets up a second season it may never get. What’s important, though, is that the show does answer all of its major mysteries by that point, giving it a somewhat satisfying but also absolutely off-the-rails conclusion.
While Tell Me Your Secrets is so obvious in some of its crime show beats that it’s easy to guess more than a few of the twists and even some of the exact dialogue before it happens, what the show does really well is put women in positions they don’t typically occupy in these kinds of pulpy series. Both Karen and Mary are incredibly complex, but more interesting is how Mary’s “grieving mother as hero” type is completely upended throughout the season. Further, the way young, wayward girls are quickly obsessed with Karen is also new, and something more typical of a dynamic with a mysterious new man in town rather than a woman. Mary, too, is given a much younger (male) lover she controls, and who adores her in a puppy-ish way. Even though the show doesn’t explore what any of these pairings really mean, it’s notable enough that they exist.
Questions of who to trust and how all of these characters connect, not to mention how they react to pressure and how far they will go when cornered, all make Tell Me Your Secrets an engaging watch, despite other notable flaws. But that’s what makes these kinds of series such fun—despite being riddled with plot holes and often wasting potential to be better, they are full of questions you want answered, teasing twists and delivering on crazy crescendos of overlapping storylines. It’s certainly not high art, but for fans of wild, ridiculous, entertaining crime dramas (see also How to Get Away with Murder, The Stranger, Marcella), Tell Me Your Secrets is a worthy addition to the genre. It also, crucially, never made me feel like I was wasting my time watching it—I knew exactly what I was getting into. And sometimes, it’s no secret that it’s just the kind of show you need.
All 10 episodes of Tell Me Your Secrets are now streaming on Amazon Prime Video.
Allison Keene is the TV Editor of Paste Magazine. For more television talk, pop culture chat and general japery, you can follow her @keeneTV
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