It opens like a standard crime investigation show: late at night, a shadowy figure follows a young woman to her car; by morning, she’s dead. But Deception isn’t just another crime procedural, as it seems to be. Instead, it’s another investigation of the dark secrets of the wealthy, who have a lot to hide.
The dead girl is Vivian, daughter of the distinguished Bowers family, and when her cause of death is determined to be an overdose, a scandal explodes. Enter Vivian’s estranged best friend from childhood, Joanna (Meagan Good). Now a detective, she goes undercover to investigate what really happened to Vivian, pretending to reconcile with the family and moving in as a houseguest. As the show’s tagline says, “To find the truth, she’ll become a lie.”
So far, so like Revenge. For Joanna, everyone’s a suspect. Her own deception seems minimal at first, as she truly appears to be mourning the loss of her one-time friend. But the longer she snoops around, the more she comes to question her own assumptions and memories.
This is Deception‘s most intriguing thematic focus. The first episode, airing 7 January, also sets up an immediate plot-based problem, that as the detective delves into the case, the lie she “becomes” is increasingly complicated, as she must justify her continued presence in the house to those family members who aren’t so pleased to have her around. Edward (Tate Donovan), Vivian’s older brother and Joanna’s prime suspect, tells Joanna outright he doesn’t trust her, and Sophia (Katherine LaNasa), the patriarch’s second wife and the only one who doesn’t appear to be devastated by Vivian’s loss, shows drunken contempt for Joanna. The youngest Bower, Mia (Ella Rae Peck), does little to hide her spite toward “the houseguest,” a term she uses more than once to denigrate the exceedingly amiable Joanna. Mia’s opposite might be found in her older brother Julian (Wes Brown), who eagerly tries to rekindle his childhood romance with Joanna.
If the behaviors of the other family members seem obvious, the father, Robert (Victor Garber), remains more of a mystery, at least in this first episode. He unhesitatingly invites Joanna to stay with them, apparently indefinitely. Yet his intentions may be earnest. He sounds sincere enough in his eulogy, when he expresses a deep affection for his daughter, yet he also doesn’t hesitate to point out her many vices, in particular the addiction that supposedly led to her death.
Robert may have his own issues, but he seems more able than his relatives to resist the catty sort of dialogue that characterizes this sort of show: in the inevitable family dinner scene, for example, Julian cruelly describes Edward lying awake at night wondering why no one likes him; Edward responds, “Well, I don’t lie awake at night because I don’t do cocaine.” Such rancor is apparently genetic, as a penchant for cleverly cruel dialogue seems to infect nearly every member of the Bowers family. In a brief confrontation with Joanna, Sophia offers a few perfectly acerbic words: “Vivian was a drug-addicted narcissistic black hole of need. Oh, I forgot. She’s dead, so now she’s a saint.”
These nasty displays lay out the family’s complex interrelationships and secrets, which Joanna tries to decipher even as she must keep her own. When we first meet her, Joanna exhibits all the strength and determination of a hardened cop, but this stolid exterior quickly dissolves when her former partner and one-time lover Will (Laz Alonso) steps back into her life with the news of Vivian’s death. No surprise, her strength gradually returns, and she goes on to display remarkable skills of deception as she infiltrates the Bowers household. Once in place, she does make some predictable mistakes, heightening the show’s suspense, including almost being discovered while spying on Edward, nearly succumbing to Julian’s advances, and blowing her cover to the independent investigator Remy (Christopher Denham).
While these slips put Joanna in some typical jeopardy, Deception creates other intrigues, focused on the problem of her childhood memories. Illustrated by an excessive use of flashbacks featuring younger versions of Joanna and the Bowers, these high-contrast, hyper-saturated scenes largely fail to make the pilot’s extensive exposition very compelling. The one effective flashback does more than just show what happened in the past, but rather hints at something more complex, that is, the idea that memory itself can be deceptive. Even as Joanna remembers an intoxicated Vivian attempting to run away from home, her investigation reveals that her inaccurate recollection may have led her to make a grave and regrettable decision.
While all these mysteries, secrets, and tensions make for an intriguing premise, the pilot begs the question: how far can this story really go? Clearly Joanna can’t remain a houseguest for a multi-season story arc, or even for more than the first episode, as her reasons for being there are tenuous at best. The show’s tentative solution is to have Robert offer Joanna a job: it’s not an entirely plausible turn, but Deception allows that even he, the most hospitable of the Bowers, might have his own, potentially deceptive reasons. For now, the Bowers and Joanna provide enough mystery to maintain our interest, but we’re left wondering whether the show’s compelling start is actually taking us somewhere, or if instead this, too, is only a deception.