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‘Liar’ Review: Great Acting Can’t Conceal The Over-the-Top Melodrama of This Miniseries

SundanceTV's latest British co-production has a compelling beginning and a great pair of leads, but ultimately disappoints.

Ioan Gruffudd as Andrew Earlham, Joanne Froggatt as Laura Nielson - Liar _ Season 1, Episode 1 - Photo Credit: Two Brothers Pictures/ITV/SundanceTV

Joss Barratt/Two Brothers Pictur

You may have a perception in your head of what kind of show “Liar” is, based on SundanceTV’s advertising — an intriguing descent into different perspectives on one fateful night, when two attractive single people go on a date that ends up having massive repercussions.

Andrew (Ioan Gruffudd) is a widowed doctor; Laura (Joanne Froggatt) is his teenage son’s schoolteacher. They meet for dinner, go back to her place, and things progress from there. But the next morning, Laura believes she’s been raped, and Andrew has no idea what she’s talking about.

It’s a premise theoretically drawn from the modern debate surrounding the question of consent, with the potential to explore whether or not miscommunication in these situations is truly possible. And for at least the first episode, viewers are left with legitimate doubts about… Well, not about who exactly is “right” and who is “wrong.” But there are enough unanswered questions to keep you invested in finding out more about what happened between Laura and Andrew that night.

Unfortunately, that does not persist. Critics were given the entire six-episode miniseries to view, which is why we’re able to offer up this public service: “Liar” is lying to you about what kind of a show it is. Rather than actually being the nuanced character study it presents itself as, after a few episodes its true colors are revealed as the Lifetime-movie-esque melodrama begins to escalate.

Joanne Froggatt as Laura Nielson - Liar _ Season 1, Episode 1 - Photo Credit: Joss Barratt/Two Brothers Pictures/ITV/SundanceTV

This isn’t meant as a slam on Lifetime, for the record, but those films are a very specific experience. And for those hoping for the second coming of Showtime’s “The Affair” (which has shown a decline in quality since its intriguing first season, but does still have its moments as a compelling character drama), “Liar” will disappoint.

Created by Harry and Jack Williams, who were also executive producers of the acclaimed series “The Missing” and “Fleabag,” “Liar” does have a prestige TV feel — the verité camerawork will make you yearn for drizzly English mornings, and the way in which past and present are stitched together by the editing is a big factor in how compelling the first few episodes prove to be.

Perhaps that’s what makes the lie of “Liar” so disappointing, though another major factor in that is the caliber of acting on display here. Both Froggatt and Gruffudd prove equally matched, with Gruffudd’s blend of charm and confusion essential to selling the ambiguous nature of the premise. Meanwhile, Froggatt summons a range of emotions, from giddy anticipation to complete devastation, that makes her magnetic on screen; she’s given so many incredible moments to play as an actor, and tears into each and every one of them. It’s a Meryl Streep-level performance.

But when the big twists come — and oh, they do come — neither actor is able to escape the material, particularly the dense confessional monologues that completely contradict the grounded nature of earlier episodes. And it doesn’t help that when they’re not on screen, the surrounding subplots fail to add much to the drama. Vanessa (Shelley Conn), as the detective investigating Laura’s claims, proves to be a dynamic character whose story is quite compelling, but the same can’t be said of the rest.

Shelley Conn as DI Vanessa Harmon, Danny Webb as DS Rory Maxwell - Liar _ Season 1, Episode 1 - Photo Credit: Joss Barratt/Two Brothers Pictures/ITV/SundanceTV

Credit where credit is due: The premise may seem like it invites viewers to question the legitimacy of any rape survivor’s story, so it’s important to note that the show mainly highlights the astonishing level of scrutiny so many survivors’ claims are put through in real life. (At this very moment, in fact, Film Twitter is consumed with a similar discussion.)

The treatment of Laura, after she comes forward to say she was assaulted, acknowledges this harsh reality while never trivializing her character’s journey. In fact, every episode of “Liar” notes that the show was produced “with the advice and support” of three different organizations: Rape Crisis South London, Surrey & Sussex; Mountain Healthcare Limited; and Sunflower Sexual Assault Referral Centre. It shows.

In the end, “Liar” isn’t the show we were hoping it would be. As is so often the case, lies might make for the better narrative, and the truth is an unpleasant one.

Grade: C+

“Liar” airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. on SundanceTV. 

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