Ah, the initial week of college. Depart from your home, form new friendships, shape a fresh persona and, if you happen to be the protagonist in the American drama Tell Me Lies, transform into the leading lady in a lackluster erotic thriller. There’s no experience quite like it.
We set our backpacks on the premises of Baird College, an idyllic school populated by wealthy students from uneventful towns in upstate New York. One of the insults hurled at first-year student Lucy (Grace Van Patten) by unpredictable senior Stephen (Jackson White) is that she is just another spoiled, attractive dreamer. At a fraternity party on her first day, Stephen corners Lucy on the stairs and starts with the line: “You seem really uncomfortable in that dress.” Feeling unsure in this daunting new setting, Lucy has indeed borrowed a constricting, strap-adorned outfit for the event.
As the conversation progresses, Stephen leans in closer and closer to her while sipping from a red cup and sharing his somewhat risky insights as an older man. By the end, he has a hold on her. Despite her conflicting emotions of love and hate, she will spend the next nine episodes consumed by her infatuation with him. In a glimpse into the future, we see Lucy as a composed adult, but still nervous at the thought of Stephen attending a friend’s wedding.
Tell Me Lies shares similarities with Normal People in its portrayal of a young, inexperienced protagonist caught up in their first romantic relationship. However, while Normal People explores the tender connection between two individuals growing together, Tell Me Lies is a shallow and melodramatic story centered around a manipulative partner and their vulnerable counterpart.
The focus of the content is primarily on sexual activity, explicitly featuring nudity. However, the portrayal lacks depth or complexity in its impact on the characters. Lucy is unaware of her actions, as she becomes physically intimate with Stephen, who impresses her with his ability to give her an orgasm – something her previous partner could not do. From there, their relationship becomes a toxic fixation, with Lucy constantly giving into Stephen for unclear reasons – especially to those who are not impressed by the excessive drinking and gossip-driven college lifestyle, or by a man who uses a combination of aggressive yelling and intense staring to break down your defenses before removing his shirt.
Tell Me Lies explores the disillusionment experienced by teenagers who are not yet sure of their identity but have access to adult activities. The show acknowledges how this transitional period can exacerbate mental health issues when young adults are forced to take care of themselves. However, the show struggles with whether it is about adolescents making mistakes or successful individuals living out their idealized fantasies. This uncertainty makes it seem like the characters’ troubled pasts, including difficult relationships with their mothers and absent fathers, are simply excuses rather than explanations for their erratic behavior. One of the main characters, Stephen, also has a manipulative ex-girlfriend named Diana who is portrayed as a mature woman who sees through his schemes and has her own agenda, which often involves seducing him.
It may not be readily apparent whether the female characters’ naivety is intentional or unintentional, as the series focuses on creating a suspenseful story filled with secrets that can be revealed to keep the plot moving. The death of one of Lucy’s college friends in the first episode becomes increasingly significant as the rest of the story unfolds, making the show a combination of a romantic drama, a psychological thriller centered around a potentially damaged man, and a tale of a group of overconfident college students who experience a tragedy.
We tend to quickly move on from one part to another, resulting in a show that may be enjoyable to watch in small doses, but is more likely to be one where you watch the initial episodes to understand the concept, then casually skip to the last chapter to find out the resolution. The entire season, which was previously only on Disney+, is now also available on iPlayer, giving viewers the option to watch it all at once. However, the ending is just as underdeveloped as the rest of the show. Overall, it is geared towards children.