Twin Peaks may be considered one of the most influential TV shows of all time, but Deception, which takes another dead girl as its muse, demonstrates the limits of that influence. While the David Lynch series seduced viewers with majestic Douglas-firs, chirpy waitresses, and quaintly mannered old folks before delving into an American town’s dark underbelly, it’s not clear what vision of Americana Deception is aiming to create. The series takes place in New York, but the only recognizable “setting” is the kind of obvious, non-particular brand of American wealth that might be gleaned from a drugstore bookshelf: extravagant cocktail parties, luxurious pools, immaculate hairstyles. Moreover, the creators insist that each suspect’s passive-aggression be underscored by moments of overt hostility; as a result, Deception is too conspicuous to be convincing.
When Vivian (Bree Williamson), the daughter of a wealthy family, is found dead in a hotel room in the pilot’s opening scene, her stepmother, Sophia Bowers (Katherine LaNasa), gets a call from her husband and immediately interrupts her medical checkup to notify the rest of the family. She isn’t so overwhelmed, however, that she can’t correct her doctor when he claims she looks 47: “I’m 44, you little prick.” LaNasa’s gaudy performance is delightfully out of step with the show’s overall earnestness, especially as she fires lines like “You know the price for disloyalty in this family” in an incongruous mid-Atlantic accent. For their part, Vivian’s brother, Julian (Wes Brown), and stepsister, Mia (Ella Rae Peck), sob together in Central Park amid swelling music and dizzying camera moves, demonstrating that while there’s no right way to grieve, there’s certainly a right way to grieve dramatically.
When San Francisco police officer Joanna Locasto (Meagan Good), whose mother used to work for the Bowers, hears the news, an F.B.I. agent convinces her to attend the funeral in New York, reuniting with the family in order to solve her childhood friend’s murder. Joanna must determine when she’s overstayed her welcome, however, and how to extricate herself from intrafamilial squabbles, even as she snoops through hidden drawers and jumps in a river in an attempt to save an ally. In addition, what initially looks like colorblind casting gradually reveals itself to be a conscious statement about race and class as Joanna, who’s black, is torn between feelings for her black co-worker and her first love, Julian Bower (Wes Brown), who buys her a new car as though he were lending her an umbrella. More often than not, though, the series misfires by priding its high-stakes game of suspicion over any familiarity between Joanna and her suspects, and the Bowers’ resentment of their guest is barely concealed. Each actor is locked in a tightly framed close-up, and Joanna’s sincere recollections about Vivian’s brother, Edward Bower (Tate Donovan), teaching her how to drive feel forced given that none of the performances possess the subtext of a shared history.
The only Bower with whom Joanna forms a convincing relationship is Mia, who hadn’t even been born the last time she was around. It’s as though the writers, unburdened by the need to indicate a backstory between characters who’ve never met, have allowed the relationship to evolve fully in the present. When Mia asks, “How was your, uh, ’business trip’ with Julian?,” its clear that her initial belligerence toward Joanna has mellowed into a friendly taunt. Joanna responds, “I heard those quotation marks, girl.” Unlike the gratuitous flashbacks, the scene gives us a good sense of what Joanna’s friendship with Vivian might have been like, which in turn raises the stakes on the mystery at the heart of the series.
Unlike many soap operas, Deception’s murder mystery isn’t an engine that drives the plot; it’s, quite decidedly, the plot in and of itself. The twists are remarkably swift, and the writers succeed at preempting our expectations even when they don’t exactly thwart them. Along with a corporate cover-up, secret pregnancy, offed informant, and love triangle featured in the first three episodes comes the tacit promise and puzzle of how it can somehow be topped next week. The writers, for their part, certainly inspire confidence when it comes to the sturdiness of their vehicle, and that’s no small feat. It’s the intervals between the intrigue, however, that feel regrettably squandered, and the characters’ rare moments alone reveal little more than the actors’ lack of direction. Aside from murder and scandal, the Bowers don’t have much going on in their lives.