The Lying Game debuts tonight on ABC Family at 9 p.m. Eastern.
Imagine, for a moment, that you’ve got an identical twin you didn’t know existed, indeed an identical twin you’ve never even met. (I mean, who doesn’t, right?) Now imagine that when you finally discover this person, you learn that their life isn’t just the life you’ve always dreamed of; it’s 10 times the life you’ve always dreamed of. And then they want to trade lives with you for some bizarre reason that only really makes sense to them. Here’s my question for you: Would you have even an ounce of angst about this? Or would you just enjoy the ride?
There are at least three major TV projects based around an idea similar to this one coming up this year. Two debut tonight. In addition to The Lying Game (whose premise is the one outlined above), Lifetime’s got a Charisma Carpenter vehicle about an unstable woman who steals the life of her coma-ridden identical twin, only to have her twin’s child suspect that something’s up with her mom. And then The CW has Ringer, which features Sarah Michelle Gellar going through the same paces. I suppose I could argue that all of these stories are popping up at the same time because something’s in the water or everybody heard about Ringer and wanted to copy it (with their own Buffy alum, apparently) or everybody is intrigued by the arbitrary nature of fate and why we end up the people we do, but, really, these stories are popular this year for the same reason they always are: the class war.
When you think about it, there’s nothing more arbitrary than what status of society you’re born into. In capitalism, you theoretically have the opportunity to vault up into the upper echelons if you work hard enough, while the very rich can become the very poor if they’re stupid enough, but for the most part, you’re pretty much locked into the class strata you were born into. There’s nothing wrong with this, really. Most people are lazy and are going to just exist within the level they’re most comfortable at. Others will chafe against that and fight their way upward (or downward, I guess). But in an age where there’s more class stratification than ever and more income inequality than ever, there’s something alluring to the idea that there’s another version of you, just waiting for you to take up his or her mantle and step into his or her life like nothing’s changed. Because I was born into relatively comfortable circumstances, I’m never going to know what it’s like to be dirt poor. But it’s also highly unlikely I’ll ever know what it’s like to be a billionaire (unless you’re Warren Buffett and require an on-call TV critic). But what if there were another Todd that could become me, as surely as I could become them? Would it, at some point, cease to be class tourism and become something real?
These are all of the fascinating ideas ABC Family’s new series The Lying Game mostly avoids. Oh, sure, it steps right up to the edge of them, so I suppose there’s a theoretical version of the show that delves into these ideas (particularly once the great, glowering Adrian Pasdar joins the cast next week in an episode I haven’t seen). But it seems more likely to me that the series will stick with what’s in the pilot and what’s worked for the channel before: pretty young teenagers in scenarios that seem dangerous but are actually pretty toothless, with occasional goofy twists that upend everything you thought you knew. The only real question about The Lying Game at this point is why on Earth the network scheduled it after the vapid Secret Life Of The American Teenager instead of the much more compatible Pretty Little Liars.
Our central heroines in The Lying Game are Emma and Sutton, both played by Alexandra Chando, who seems assembled by a mad scientist from bits and pieces of other teen soap actresses’ DNA. (From one angle, she looks just like Nina Dobrev; from another, she’s season-one-of-The-O.C. Mischa Barton.) Chando fits right into the ABC Family wheelhouse, as she’s seemingly convinced that the secret to great acting involves looking at just the right angle and squinting JUST so, as though the world were too painful to take in all at once. Chando’s performance is so understated that it comes across as lethargic, and the show, in general, takes too many cues from her, as though all involved were trying to make the idea of finding your long-lost identical twin and then trading lives with her relatable to all of the folks at home who’ve done just that. (Again, who hasn’t?) The scene where Emma and Sutton make the trade is played by Chando as if this were a totally boring, mundane rite of passage that every teenager has to go through, like purchasing a graduation cap and gown.
Emma’s the poor half of this equation, apparently abandoned by her birth parents to a life of foster care, while Sutton was sent to some sort of ultra-deluxe adoption agency. (Her parents keep telling Emma—when she’s posing as Sutton—that they “chose” Sutton, as though adoption agencies were just rows upon rows of babies in cages, and the most adorable ones go home first, while the others age into less desirable toddlers.) When the pilot begins, Emma and Sutton have found each other via the Internet, and when Emma runs afoul of her super-horny and completely unsubtle about it foster brother, she hits the road to head off to Sutton’s life and its lap of luxury. After she and Sutton make the swap, Emma completely shifts the girl’s personality, simply from necessity. (If she acts like she likes everyone, they’ll be more willing to walk her through whatever intricacies Sutton’s life possesses.) Nobody really gives a shit, and they seem pleased that the mercurial Sutton has morphed into someone vaguely bearable. (I’m waiting for the season finale where everyone figures out what happened, decides they like the new Sutton better, and kills the original article.)
But at the same time, why should they? If a friend of yours started acting slightly different, would you conclude that they’d had a change of heart for some reason, perhaps thanks to a really good therapist or something, or would you conclude that they’d been replaced by an identical twin they’d never mentioned before? (I dare you to angrily suggest this the next time a friend makes a mild change to his or her life.) Of course you’d assume the latter, which means that all drama in The Lying Game is rather ludicrous. Will Sutton’s parents catch on? Of course they won’t! Will her sister? No. She’s too busy delivering awkwardly written exposition! Even more ludicrous is the one person who does figure out that it’s not Sutton. I wanted that character to promptly leave the show and get a spinoff where they roam the American West, battling the pod people they’re certain must exist, since they replaced good ol’ Sutton back home. (Sutton, for her part, heads off to investigate the secret lives of the twins’ birth parents, promising to be back in a couple of days. Does she come back? Have you watched television before?)
The biggest problem with The Lying Game is that it’s more fun to discuss it and all of its crazy implausibilities than it is to actually watch it. There’s nothing fresh or exciting here. The network (and its partners at Alloy, a publishing company that now has something like 500 series aimed at teen girls on the air) have made the most boring possible version of this particular story. Even the pretty-bad Ringer at least has the balls to go a little nuts now and then. The Lying Game is just bland, with an overarching storyline that will be instantly predictable to anyone who’s watching the show and is at all familiar with the tropes of a teen soap. (Obviously I don’t know if my predictions for what happens over the course of the series are accurate, but I’d be astounded if they weren’t.) There are fascinating, compelling, potentially dark ideas at the core of The Lying Game, ideas about class and identity and what it would mean to become someone else. And instead of tackle those, even on the level that teenagers might understand and enjoy, all involved have come up with the mildest possible Prince And The Pauper riff, stuck it in the mouth of a boring lead actor, then sent everybody involved parading around in fashions that were last cool in 1992. It’s not a terrible show, just a mediocre one, but that’s somehow even worse. And like so many other shows this fall, it needs to be at least 25 percent crazier.