The long road between what inspired “Sacred Lies” and its less-than-inspiring final version is paved with tons of enticing connections. It all began with Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm’s “The Handless Maiden,” whose Brothers Grimm fairy tale became Stephanie Oakes’ teen lit novel, “The Sacred Lies of Minnow Bly.” The story of a young woman who escapes a cult — and just so happens to be mysteriously missing her hands — proved enticing to producer and showrunner Raelle Tucker, whose family was part of the Rajneesh movement during the 1970s — the same cult depicted in Netflix’s Emmy-nominated docuseries “Wild Wild Country.”
From there, even more encouraging pieces clicked into place. Jason Blum and his TV production unit at Blumhouse came on board, along with cast members like Elena Kampouris (“Before I Fall”), Kevin Carroll (“The Leftovers”), and Toby Huss (“Halt and Catch Fire”). Facebook Watch imposed its 30-minute time limit on episodes, which might sound odd to fans of teen dramas’ typical hourlong structure, but it’s downright inspiring to everyone who’s noticed the bloat issues plaguing genre hits like “13 Reasons Why.”
And yet… Not all stories about a fringe cult worshipping a prophet named Kevin are created equal, even if both feature the great Kevin Carroll. Whether the all-encompassing problem facing the first two episodes of “Sacred Lies” is heightened expectations, faulty execution, or both, the factors that may have led some viewers to try out Facebook Watch for the first time aren’t enough to keep them there. This half-hour drama is ineffective in teasing its larger mystery, and its dialogue can be laughably blunt. Die-hard fans of the book may stick around to see how it all plays out, but that would take a level of commitment usually seen… in cults!
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Despite her background with cults, Tucker seems far more interested in her star’s missing hands. It’s not so much that the first hour wants you to wonder what happened to them or if she’ll get new ones; it’s that they want you to notice Minnow Bly (Kampouris) doesn’t have any hands. There are shots constructed to reveal her missing hands, there are many lines pointing out she’s missing her hands, and entire scenes are constructed to inform you that yes, even though Minnow is missing her hands, she’s still capable of day-to-day things like eating.
She can also beat the shit out of dudes. “Sacred Lies” opens on Minnow standing over the bloody, gurgling body of a young man she’s just physically destroyed. The cops pull up, arrest her, and, of course, have trouble handcuffing her, but the key result is a) she’s dangerous, and b) she’s going to juvenile detention. That the series is more focused on her physical deformity than their intended ideas convey is uncomfortable, at best. There’s a scene after they’ve established her capabilities meant to do exactly that, again, that could still work with a touch of subtlety; instead, the script over-commits to explaining every choice and every action with flat verbal exchanges.
These sorts of distractions override any interest in Minnow’s motivation for beating up that guy and how she escaped the cult. Reporters on TV explain what viewers should be caring about — a presumed dead cult leader named Kevin, Minnow’s impending trial — and later, a few mysteries are teased within psychological evaluations between Minnow and Dr. Wilson (Carroll, who’s at one point called “Dr. FBI,” which sums up his role as an investigator and a therapist). These sessions lead to flashbacks featuring Huss as the sweater-wearing cult leader Kevin, but early peeks inside the compound are pretty bland.
Everything is painted with such a broad brush very little details stand out. “Sacred Lies” feels like a generic teen drama cut down to 30-minute chunks that’s overly obsessed with its “Handless” origins. After only two episodes in a 10-episode first season, there’s always a chance for improvement — especially with such strong surrounding components — but so many opportunities have been wasted in just two episodes to inspire much prolonged hope.
“Sacred Lies” premieres its first three episodes Friday, July 27 at 9 p.m. ET on Facebook Watch.