Secrets and Lies 'Will Make You Question How Well You Know Anyone'
Behold, the most convincing argument yet to forego that morning jog. Ben Crawford–the character at the center of ABC's new crime thriller Secrets and Lies, played by Ryan Phillippe–is a suburban everyman dealing with his fair share of struggles. His house-painting business is drying up and his long-term marriage is showing signs of wear and tear. Then–big mistake–he heads out for a predawn run in the woods and ends up discovering the body of a 4-year-old neighborhood boy named Tom. "This is a man whose life is already less than ideal," Phillippe says. "What happens to him next will take him into a whole other territory."
Or make that who happens to him next, as laser-focused, hyper-intelligent detective Andrea Cornell (Juliette Lewis) arrives to investigate. "She's really obsessive about her job, but without being a hothead," says Lewis. "She doesn't lead with her emotions." Some preliminary digging into Ben's story bumps him to the top of her suspect list, and the media and close-knit community quickly pile on. (A bombshell at the end of the pilot will also leave the audience dubious about his innocence.)
As Ben's not-so-carefully-constructed world swiftly unravels, he becomes increasingly convinced that Cornell has a vendetta against him. "She's turning his screws," Phillippe says. "He feels infiltrated, and Cornell seems to be everywhere." True enough--that is, if you buy the narrative that's unfolding from Ben's perspective. (A series of supplementary webisodes on ABC.com will offer glimpses from Cornell's point of view.) "The adversarial nature of their relationship is coming more from Ben," Lewis says. "This feels insanely personal to him. It's not pleasant to be under the eye of someone who thinks you're a killer, and Ben has secrets."
So what's a cornered guy to do? Set out to find the "real" killer, naturally. And this small Southern town on the outskirts of Charlotte, North Carolina, offers a host of possibilities. "It's really idyllic-appearing, but if you scratch the surface of any suburb, you're going to find people with issues," Phillippe says. That includes the victim's parents, who are no longer together–the father has a preexisting beef with Ben–as well as a cul-de-sac mom (Melissa Gilbert) oozing nervous energy, a lawyer (Timothy Busfield) with a too-prescient handle on the nasty chain of events, and Ben's burnout high school buddy, Dave (Dan Fogler). "He's living in a shack out back on their property, which is a source of discord between Ben and his wife," says Phillippe.
Of course, Ben's wife, Christy (KaDee Strickland)–a local real estate agent and mom to the couple's 12- and 16-year-old daughters–has some other valid grounds for complaint against her husband. But are they serious enough for her to frame him for a crime he didn't commit? Anything is possible, warns executive producer Barbie Kligman, adding, "The only one who is completely and utterly blameless here is Tom. Every other person is hiding something, if not somethings."
That's a whole lotta loose ends to tie up in a season with only 10 episodes, which is exactly the point. (The Australian drama on which the series is based did it in six.) According to Phillippe, who appeared on the final season of Damages but has primarily acted in feature films such as Gosford Park and Crash, the limited-run format–a success for HBO's True Detective and FX's Fargo, but still unusual for network TV–was a major draw. "You know what Point B is going to be when the show starts," he says. "This is not a series that will waste your time. It's a neat package." Kligman concurs: "We wanted this to feel like a 10-episode movie."
The approach also lured Lewis–best known for her lead roles in Cape Fear, What's Eating Gilbert Grape, and Natural Born Killers–away from the big screen. "We're hoping that this has all the best elements of thriller moviemaking and a really high-quality cable series, where every single episode leaves you breathless waiting for the next," she says. And if Secrets and Lies gets renewed, Lewis would be the sole actor continuing on. "Because Cornell is so subtle, she's someone I could live with for a long time," she says. "There are a million cases we could do next."
But first, this one must be solved. "The pace will get more and more intense as it goes along, and the ending is totally shocking," promises Lewis. "I was not even close to guessing it!" The goal, after all is finally revealed, is both to stun viewers and to leave them with lingering trust issues. "Like Ben, we all have secrets and lies, but maybe they never rise to the surface," Kligman says. "This will make you question how well you know anyone–including yourself."
Secrets and Lies, Series premiere, Sunday, March 1, 9/8c, ABC