ABC’s Scandal and Revenge have been doing quite well for the US network, so it shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise that its rivals are trying to edge into the market. Both shows seem to capture a certain ethos viewers are craving right now; edgy, fierce, independent women usually rather, ah, creative means to get things done. Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington) fixes things large and small while battling her demons, and Emily Thorne (Emily VanCamp) will stop at nothing to bring down the people who destroyed her father.
Now NBC has entered the ring with Deception, in which Joanna Locasto (Meagan Good) goes under deep cover to find the truth about the death of her former best friend, a high-flying socialite. The media says she sank deep into drugs and alcohol, but Locasto suspects something more might be at work, and so do the powers that be in law enforcement. Convenient, then, that she should be a detective so they can send her undercover with the powerful Bowers family to investigate.
But to carry out her mission, she needs to live a life of tangled, complex deceptions so the family won’t suspect that she’s investigating them. Living among them, she’s forced to be “on” all the time, covering up what she’s really doing while earning their trust and confidence. And, of course, it wouldn’t be primetime soap opera without a love triangle, so rest assured, there is one.
Deception seems to be formulaically attempting to crib the most outstanding parts of Scandal and Revenge in the hopes of making a blockbuster. As in Revenge, there are layers and layers of, well, deception going on as the main character struggles to find the truth and keeps finding more secrets. The show also features a peek into the lives of the rich and famous, with accompanying class commentary on how well the Bowers live in comparison with the people around them, and how much money can buy you when it comes to criminality.
As on Scandal, the show features someone using extralegal means to get to the bottom of a problem. While Olivia Pope stands outside the justice system rather than working within it, she and Joanna Locasto have a lot in common, and it’s not just that the two women are Black—though it is refreshing and delightful to see a Black lead on television, and it’s my hope that Good will disprove the myth that shows need white leads to succeed, just as Washington is doing on Scandal. Both women have regrets, pasts, and histories, but both are also very driven, and ferociously protective of their loved ones and chosen families.
Yet, the pilot fell a bit flat. This show comes off as a softened, sweetened version of the television it’s trying to imitate, like NBC was afraid of rocking the boat, in contrast with ABC, which has put it on the line rather dramatically at times. Revenge, for example, skewers the rich and contains a continuous class commentary, while Scandal delves directly into racial politics, confronting the fact that the show’s Black lead is having an affair with the white President of the United States. Both shows are unafraid to get in the faces of viewers and challenge them, while Deception is tiptoeing through the tulips.
The show has the potential to knock viewers for a loop—Joanna is, after all, the daughter of the family housekeeper (of course she is) and there are tremendous racial and class intersections going on within the structure of the show. The pilot didn’t contain any evidence that this was in the works, however, and early advance reviews also suggest that viewers shouldn’t expect a critical race and class analysis. If anything, warns Matt Zoller Seitz at Vulture, Deception appears to be attempting to fold race and class into each other while remaining shy and tepid when it comes to challenging power structures.
It’s a pity, because the Bowers family is practically readymade for abrasive, aggressive commentary. They sit at the helm of an evil pharmaceutical empire, which provides ample opportunities for stories about the abuses of the industry, including the cancer medication storyline currently being pursued by Joanna as she falls down the rabbit hole of family secrets.
Yet, with so much going on and so many characters, there’s surprisingly little to care about, as a viewer, and much of Deception creates a cold sense of detachment. There’s nothing to connect to, and the show leaves one yawning rather than waiting eagerly for next week’s episode, wondering what’s going to happen next. In part, that’s a consequence of the rapid cycle of sink or swim in US television, where shows need to prove themselves out of the gate rather than being allowed to settle in, and thus are forced to show everything they’ve got at the start rather than building up. If networks persist in taking this approach, it’s going to be difficult to make great television.
For those who like complex unfolding murder mysteries, AMC’s The Killing would probably be a better choice, and those who like primetime soaps with bite might want to stick with Revenge and Scandal. It seems unlikely that Deception is going to venture very far out of bounds; the most interesting thing about it is probably the cinematography, particularly in the flashback sequences, and that is not exactly a rousing recommendation.