I could tell you lies about Hulu’s Tell Me Lies. I could say it evolves beyond the tropes about college romance and sex. I could claim it elevates itself above simple melodrama. I could even say it has something new to say about toxic relationships. But in doing so, I’m afraid I’d be lying.
Tell Me Lies tries to have it both ways. It’s a series that tracks the arc of a destructive relationship between Lucy (Grace Van Patten) and Stephan (Jackson White) over the course of eight years, beginning when Lucy is a fresh-faced freshman at Baird College. From the start, Stephan’s framed as the older upperclassman oozing diabolical charm, ensnaring women sexually on campus. His commitment to socially engineering the results that he wants—sex, a research position, an internship—typically succeed only when his target is an easy mark: naive and inexperienced. For Lucy, the audience should feel concern. But under Tell Me Lies’ treatment, this manipulation is highly eroticized.
Tell Me Lies joins a pantheon of entertainment designed for women that utilizes dangerous and abusive characters and situations to evoke fear/excitement responses easily conflated as arousal. The history of this method is long. It’s unsurprising that PopSugar’s review of Carole Lovering’s novel that inspired the show included as reference to Netflix’s You: “If you were pulled in by Joe’s passion in You, you’ll fall for Stephen and his unique charm in Tell Me Lies.” Typifying Joe’s behavior as “passion” has confounded even the actor Penn Badgley himself, explaining on The Late Show with Stephan Colbert that his “greatest fears” came true when viewers were “just being really into [Joe].” I wouldn’t have faulted Tell Me Lies for engaging in a pure smut approach for the series, if that was its only endgame. But Tell Me Lies attempts to go deeper, making stabs at developing out their characters’ familial backstories for sympathetic audience approval, complicating its blunt eroticism. Like the excuses given by people in toxic relationships, “It’s just sex” until it isn’t — then there needs to be some storyline and framing accountability.
Beyond Lucy and Stephan’s ill-fated entanglement, the series follows some melodramatic b-plots. Lucy’s college roommate makes a grisly early exit out of season for shock and awe. Friends of Lucy’s have sexual misadventures of their own with all the wrong people. Most slot into generic stock characterizations. Occasionally, these minor characters and their interactions possess the depth you wish the main plot would hold. Bree (Catherine Missal), whose engagement party marks the time elapsed since college in the premiere, is one example of a more nuanced performance. Her stumbles through early adult rite of passages imbue the series with needed emotional authenticity, deepening the contrast between central plotline and the minor ones.
At its core, the Mathew Hart-produced Tell Me Lies sells the lie that the best sex of your life comes from toxicity. But like any good therapist knows, people remember the sex from toxic relationships because the sex was the only thing given to them by a toxic partner—not actual partnership, respect, or dignity. So in the cyclical high and lows where Lucy takes drug hits off her want of what little Stephan gives her, the addiction holding pattern is made bare. She wants to be truly seen. But the relationship, like the series as a whole, is lacking.
Tell Me Lies premieres Wednesday, September 7th on Hulu.
Katherine Smith is Virginia-based freelance writer and contributor to Paste Magazine. For her musings on popular culture, politics, and beyond, find her on Twitter @k_marie_smith
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