Like its main characters, Tell Me Your Secrets has a mysterious backstory. It’s been sitting on the shelf for a few years, after TNT decided to cancel it after the entire first season had been shot. Brett Weitz, general manager of TNT, TBS, and TruTV, said that it “wasn’t right” for TNT. But the ready-made thriller series starring TV vet Amy Brenneman and real-life couple Lily Rabe and Hamish Linklater apparently found a second wind (Rabe’s stellar turn in the recent HBO limited series The Undoing probably didn’t hurt). Now the series, created by Call The Midwife’s Harriet Warner, is being released en masse on Prime Video.
It’s not like TNT, home of The Alienist (about the hunt for a serial killer murdering boy prostitutes in 1896) and Snowpiercer (post-apocalyptic dystopian train) is known for feel-good series exactly, so Tell Me’s rejection from that network gives you some idea of how dark the series is bound to get (hint: extremely dark). It tells the story of three disparate people whose lives intertwine for the worst possible reasons. Rabe stars as Karen who, after falling in love with imprisoned serial killer Kit (Xavier Samuel), is now “Emma” in witness protection in the tiny Louisiana town of St. James. Brenneman is Mary, the mother of a daughter she believes Kit abducted, and Linklater is John, a serial predator trying to turn his life around when Mary hires him to find Karen.
The lines between victim and villain blur throughout the series: Is Karen just as guilty as her boyfriend, or was she a victim of manipulation? Mary, who now runs a foundation to help find missing children, has become obsessive in her grief and rage (compounded by the fact that she refuses to believe that her daughter is dead, while the rest of her family begs for closure), which leads her to some heinous acts of her own. The generic character names John and Mary suggest that we are all just one evil impulse or unspeakable tragedy away from becoming the monsters we would otherwise abhor.
And there is no shortage of monsters in Tell Me Your Secrets. Karen/Emma is the most sympathetic of the lot (thanks to Rabe’s reliably complex performance), and we’re not even that sure about her. She’s been cautioned by her therapist, Pete (Enrique Murciano), the only person who knows where she is, to stay away from young girls, but can’t seem to help herself when she defends young Jess (E’myri Crutchfield) from official town teen mean queen Rose (Chiara Aurelia). Jess lives at a group home in town (drawing in Emma, who grew up in foster care), which—guess what?—also has secrets. Tell Me Your Secrets is enough to stoke heathy suspicion and dread toward pretty much any sort of institutionalized system (a surprising take from the creator of Call The Midwife) or person, really: Almost every character we meet is more unsavory than the next. The only sympathetic ones, like Jess, have backstories sadder than Oliver Twist’s, and often fates that turn out even more tragic.
Tell Me Your Secrets’ mission statement appears to be in its title (original title: Deadlier Than The Male), but for the most part, you have to wonder if the revelation of these secrets leads to a better path for anyone. In the series’ opening scene, Mary visits Karen in prison to ask her for the truth about what happened to her daughter. But what if Mary can’t handle the truth? Just how many times do we need to hear descriptions of Kit bludgeoning women with a hammer? John wants to change, as indicated by his meditation altar and oft-repeated soothing mantra, but what if that’s just not possible for him? Even when the revelation is necessary—as the group home is involved in a conspiracy that entangles all of St. James, including John-Boy Walton himself, Richard Thomas, as town leader—the facts involved are almost too depressing to contemplate. What’s the opposite of uplifting? Downlifting?
The three talented leads struggle valiantly to rise above such rapidly descending material, as murky and sticky as the swamps Emma and Jess travel through in St. James. The Mary/John relationship gets more fascinating the more it devolves, as it slowly dawns on her that perhaps sending a serial perpetrator back out on the trail wasn’t the wisest idea. Linklater imbues John with so many facets that he is improbably able to draw some sympathy for a character who’s almost entirely unsympathetic. Rabe has the toughest role, playing a conflicted character so charismatic that apparently anyone who wanders into her orbit magnetically gets stuck there, including a kind local cop who starts up a relationship with her that appears to be purely for plot purposes. The same can be said of a scene in which Emma accuses Pete of being in love with her even though there’s been little evidence to back that statement up (but hey, he’s got secrets too!). And Emma and John’s inevitable fight scene is so brutal, it makes you fear for the future of the two actors’ real-life relationship.
Maybe in a different era, Tell Me Your Secrets would have fared better—but as it stands, 10 hours of depressing psychological warfare (scored by ominous string instruments that sound like they’re being strangled) is probably not something many are jonesing to dive into right now. Especially when the shocking twists, when they finally arrive, somehow throw even more kindling onto the “everything is awful” fire. Mary wonders if people can really change, but she already has, as she was once a loving wife and mother who is now capable of behavior that would have been completely foreign to her in her previous life. But the cynical imprint that Tell Me Your Secrets’ leaves behind is that it’s nearly impossible to change for the better, even though Emma—and Rabe—tries her hardest.