When ABC Family premiered The Lying Game, it was obvious the network was attempting to mimic the success it has had with Pretty Little Liars. Both shows are based on a young adult book series, both feature impossibly gorgeous teenagers doing ridiculous and/or dangerous things, and both have that faux-glamour sheen The CW popularized with shows like Gossip Girl and 90210. While The Lying Game hasn’t turned out to have quite the ratings power of its predecessor, throughout the first half of its first season, it has managed to develop one thing Pretty Little Liars has always lacked: heart.
In early episodes, The Lying Game suffered though several growing pains before figuring out exactly how to tell this story of Sutton and Emma, two secret twins—one rich, one poor—who switch places in order to solve the mystery of their birth mother’s identity and why they were separated at birth. Much of it was simply allowing Alexandra Chando time to settle into playing these two roles and realizing she is much stronger when playing the more earnest, sympathetic Emma and focusing the story around her journey.
Emma’s story was always the more compelling one. While rich girl Sutton was dealing with the ins and outs of the mystery storyline, tracking the twins' birth mother to a mental institution (and, in an amusing turn, ending up held involuntarily in it herself), poor foster kid Emma was learning how different her life could have been had she been the one adopted by Sutton’s family. This is where the aforementioned heart comes in. Where spoiled Sutton had an indifferent and even contentious attitude towards her parents, sister, friends, and even boyfriend, Emma immediately begins to mend all of these relationships by simply being attentive and appreciative to those around her.
In telling this story, the show also hasn’t shied away from the complications involved with the inherent deception Emma is dealing in every day she pretends to be Sutton. For a show so superficial on its face, The Lying Game's first 10 episodes have featured a surprising depth of emotion in this regard. Emma knows what she is doing is wrong, and part of her is certainly doing it for selfish reasons. On the other hand, she is basically fixing all of the messes Sutton has made of the most important relationships in her life. Does the good intent of the latter make up for the moral turpitude of the former? It’s an interesting question, and one The Lying Game has done a far better job broaching than the similar (and far more high-profile) Ringer will probably ever be able to do. Emma still isn’t sure, and it’s presented in a neutral enough way as to allow the audience to make their own decision. On a show that isn’t necessarily going to win any awards for subtle dialogue, the willingness to be that subtle in regards to the sympathies of the protagonist is impressive.
Also contributing to the heart factor is the central romantic relationship of the show, Emma and Ethan. Admittedly, it started out as something less than thrilling, considering Ethan was Sutton’s boyfriend before Emma came to town, and the idea of him dating both halves of a twinset was more than a little off-putting. Still, the chemistry of the actors and the gradual buildup of their love story was told in a way that sold me hook, line, and sinker. It’s a bit embarrassing to admit, considering I am decidedly not in the target demo, but their relationship has become one of the main reasons to tune into the show for me. Beyond any warm fuzzies the couple may exude, the complicated nature of the relationship, and Ethan’s past ties to Sutton also allow for the kind of juicy love triangle drama any teen soap worth its salt needs to survive.
Although I’ve come to enjoy the show mostly for its characters and their emotional journey, if you read any description of the show, it is likely to concentrate on its more sensational plot-driven points. Sutton’s search for her birth mother and Emma’s quest to find out what the people in Sutton’s life know while she is away isn’t done poorly—in fact, it’s been mostly well-paced and plotted throughout—it’s just far less compelling than the emotional content. Here’s what we do know: Annie Hobbes, aunt of Sutton’s best friend Char, is the sisters' birth mother; Annie, whom we meet in a mental institution, believed she accidentally killed Emma in a fire when she was a baby; local district attorney and friend of Sutton’s father Alec (a slimy, perfect Adrian Pasdar) was actively involved in the cover up and separating the twins; Sutton’s father Ted was also involved in the cover up. Still unclear is exactly who the birth father is and why this cover up was necessary at all.
The mystery element has been acceptable so far, mostly because the series has only lasted 10 episodes. One of the inherent difficulties of this premise is the limited nature of everything involved. Emma and Sutton can’t switch places forever, and the mother mystery can’t drag on forever, lest the entire thing get too ridiculous and end up so convoluted as to lose any chance of maintaining the emotional relevance the writers have worked so hard to build. Pretty Little Liars is the worst example of this; at some point, those characters went from being people to being pieces in a chess board, controlled by an all-powerful being, and the show has suffered because of it. For The Lying Game to succeed, it is eventually going to need to evolve.
Until then, though, I’m happy to enjoy the show for the simple pleasures it brings. It isn’t perfect by any means, or even the best show on ABC Family (that would be Switched At Birth, for my money), but it does hit that sweet spot for me where emotional teen dramas and superficial teen soaps intersect. And if the emotional undercurrent of the show isn’t enough to make you return, the finale did end on quite the suspenseful note: Sutton being forced to drive her car into a river and fighting to escape, while Emma, back at her birthday party, comes face to face with birth mother Annie Hobbes. Will Sutton survive? Will Annie finally explain what happened when they were born? Me, I just want to know if those crazy kids Emma and Ethan can make it work. But I’m a sap like that.
- The opening titles are ridiculous and make no sense. Why is there a pool? (Answer: So they can put the lead in a bikini. I know.)
- Although I am far more interested in Emma’s story, Sutton-as-Emma was very compelling and well played by Chando.
- The mystery figure in Sutton’s backseat: purposeful Veronica Mars homage, or simple horror story trope?
- Emma was wet at the party. Is the show trying to make us think she’s the one who forced Sutton to crash into the water? Because no way.
- One thing the show is still struggling with is the secondary characters. Sutton’s friends aren’t very compelling, and in fact Madison Burge (Becky from Friday Night Lights) made more of an impression in two episodes than any of them have made in 10.