Deception debuts tonight on NBC at 10 p.m. Eastern.
Deception remembered to do everything but make an interesting show. The cast is stacked with great actors, both fresh faces and veterans. The premise is solid, filled with ample opportunity for the twists and turns that make serialized TV drama fun. (And, okay, it’s fairly reminiscent of Revenge, but a little imitation never hurt anybody on TV.) The series’ lead character has endless potential for sympathy, and she’s played by an actress who could very easily become a TV star with the right part. The direction is often lush, and the locations used are just the right level of decadent, the better to entertain us by taking us into the world of the idle rich and showing us their seamy underbelly. And there’s ample opportunity for the sly sort of side-commentary about race and class that network TV can do well, not by making those issues the focus of the show but by offering the occasional nod in their general direction. None of this is rocket science, but, hey, Dynasty was a lot of fun, Melrose Place was a lot of fun, and Dallas changed television.
Even with all the pieces there, Deception is bland, listless, and boring. It’s just not fun to watch, and the first thing any frothy soap needs to be is fun. The scenes lack snap. The actors are trying, but the dialogue they’ve been handed isn’t especially clever or catty. The premise already feels stretched and strained in episode three, and the show completely refuses to deal with any of the questions of race or class that are raised, even in passing. The idea that the show’s protagonist could get sucked into the life of the rich family she infiltrates is raised as a “danger,” but it’s never particularly explained why this would be the case, beyond the idea that this specific family is murderous. Deception at once feels too general—in that it’s assembled from lots of pieces viewers will be familiar with from other shows—and too specific—in that it expects its audience to automatically be interested in this particular family because that’s the one on TV.
At the center of Deception is police detective Joanna Locasto (Meagan Good), who is introduced to viewers as a police detective by showing her busting a punk but only gets that one arrest on the job before she’s pulled into the most needlessly complicated FBI mission ever. Her former boyfriend Will (Laz Alonso) is investigating the murder of a young woman named Vivian Bowers (Bree Williamson, who appears in flashbacks like she’s Lilly Kane or something). Will knows that Joanna once lived with the Bowers family, because her mother worked for the family. (It’s heavily implied she was a maid, though at the show’s session at the Television Critics Association winter press tour, the writers said that was not the intention.) Joanna and Vivian were the best of friends, and flashbacks depict a teenage Joanna having illicit hook-ups with Vivian’s brother and ne’er-do-well Bower son Julian (Wes Brown), so heading back into this world undercover is, of course, the most natural thing in the world for her to do.
NBC sent out three episodes of Deception, and as the show goes on, Joanna keeps getting sucked deeper and deeper into the world of the Bowers, but never in truly interesting ways. She ends up in a position that puts her fairly close to family patriarch Robert (Victor Garber), and her former closeness to the family also puts her at the table for tense family dinners, including all of the other family members who are running their own agendas and pursuing their own conflicts. (One of them is Tate Donovan, who looks surprisingly like he could be Garber’s son.) There’s one fairly solid twist at the end of the pilot—which is already up on Wikipedia, for the curious—but after that, Joanna’s journey just takes her deeper and deeper into exactly where anyone would expect her to go.
All of television runs on the twin engines of predictability and surprise. A show that consists only of crazy twists and things that would never happen eventually betrays its characters and floats off into the stratosphere. There needs to be some grounding element, something that viewers can always count on to keep the series from becoming incomprehensible. On TV, that element is usually the characters, who come to be known to the audience in such a way that their behavior can usually be roughly predicted within a narrow range of options. There are shows that put unpredictable characters through predictable situations—the early seasons of Breaking Bad and much of Mad Men come to mind—but if the plot is sizzling and the characters make sense, that’s the basis for 90 percent of good television.
The problem with Deception, then, is that both the characters and plot are completely predictable. The only person who seems to have been doing anything interesting in the Bowers family was Vivian, and now she’s dead. This means the rest of the family always behaves exactly like rich families do in primetime soaps. The Ewings or Carringtons or even the Graysons they are not. The plotting of the show is exactly the sort of Revenge cross-pollinated with Veronica Mars hodgepodge that would be expected from reading the premise. Most damning of all, Joanna doesn’t really have any agency of her own. She is mostly told what to do, then does it, and when she’s warned not to get sucked back into the Bowers family, there’s never any real threat to it. (There’s basically no threat to the Bowers whatsoever, beyond the idea that one of them might have killed Vivian, a threat that remains uninteresting because the audience barely knows Vivian.) The story trudges forward on the preset track for all primetime soaps since time immemorial. The cast is great—even the unknowns like Ella Rae Peck as a snarky teenager are well-chosen and fun—but the series seems uninterested in giving them good material to grapple with.
There’s one interesting element to Deception, but it’s one the show runs away from at every opportunity. See, Joanna is African-American, yet she grew up in a world of extreme white privilege, surrounded by the sort of opulence and abundance that her unseen mother seemed to shun because she didn’t want her daughter becoming part of a family she saw as so decadent. (Joanna was sent away when her mother caught her in bed with Julian.) Like Vivian, Joanna’s mother is an important presence who remains entirely off-camera, increasing just how vague all of the series’ stakes and threats seem to be. There are occasional feints in the direction of doing a show that grapples at least somewhat directly with the questions of race and class that this whole notion raises, but whenever something like that comes up—say, in the scene where Joanna explains why her mother removed her from the Bowers’ bosom—the show jets away just as quickly. Good is terrific, and she’d be a great lead for a show that really digs into these questions, as would Alonso. But the show’s lack of interest in even raising them for too long marks it as, frankly, a bit cowardly.
Network TV doesn’t like to talk about these issues, and in a more exciting, more suspenseful version of Deception, it would be fine to have them present only as tangents. But in a show this boring, it becomes easy to wish the show would head toward those issues directly, if only to be doing something different from a million shows that have preceded it (including one that’s on the air right now and even manages to deal with issues of class better than this show, all without seeming to try to). Any time critics raise issues of race and class, there will inevitably be viewers who say, “Why would I want that in my TV shows?” But maybe that’s the wrong question; maybe the question should be: When a show is this boring, why wouldn’t you want that to be in your TV show? At least them something would be happening.