Spoilers for episode one of Liar lie ahead.
Television writers seem to quite like writing about sexual assault. It’s an easy shortcut to drama, romantic escalation between the (almost always female) victim and their (always male) savior, and the instant vilification of the attacker.
When Game of Thrones was pulled up a couple of years back for its flippant use of rape and sexual assault as a crude narrative tool, there was a glimmer of hope that maybe the industry would finally start to treat the victimization of women as something worthy of serious – if any at all – exploration, rather than used to propel forwards the stories of the men around them.
That sadly hasn’t yet become a reality in Hollywood, but the real-world conversations around consent have meant that the subject matter has remained in our collective consciousness.
Liar, ITV’s glossy new Monday-night thriller, feels like the logical conclusion to all of this. It stars Joanne Froggatt, who’s no stranger to botched rape storylines after her time on Downton Abbey, and looks at the ‘modern’ problem of consent through the eyes of both the alleged victim and her alleged assailant. After the first episode we’re not sure what actually happened, and can expect the guessing game to continue for at least the next few weeks (the creators have stated that we will discover who is the titular liar by the end of episode four).
As we can expect from The Missing writers Harry and Jack Williams, not everything is told in a typically linear fashion. We discover bits and pieces through flashback as the story progresses, and will presumably have the whole picture by the end.
We meet Laura and Andrew as they re-meet cute in the school car park. Laura is a no-nonsense teacher and Andrew the father of one of her pupils, and so they decide to go on a date. It all goes well until we see Laura wake up in a state, immediately scrub herself clean and then confess to her sister that she thinks she was raped the previous night.
When Andrew is subsequently arrested by the police, he denies all knowledge. To him, the sex had been consensual and, for some reason, Laura is lying.
And so we have the basic set-up. We as the audience must decide who to believe, and it’s the actors’ job to sell us their side of the story. Over the course of the first hour, we’re offered evidence for each case. In Laura’s favor is the fact that Andrew had clearly been acting shady with the wine glasses (Laura may have been drugged with something that had passed from her system by the time she went to the police station), the information that his wife killed herself and – well – Laura’s word. For Andrew, we have the tease of ‘what happened last time’ and the fact that Laura has experienced ill-defined mental health issues in the past.
A side-story with Laura’s sister and ex-boyfriend having an affair sticks out like a sore thumb in its soap opera silliness, betraying Liar as the shallow drama it’s trying hard not to be.
Now, I feel like the intentions here were mostly good. Television must be, first and foremost, engaging for an audience and ITV’s audience, in particular, quite like a crime thriller. Making Liar fit into that popular genre is a smart move, even if it threatens to cheapen the topics at hand. The first episode is well directed and boasts strong performances from it’s leads. Heck, we can assume the rest of the scripts were good enough to entice Ioan Gruffudd back to UK television.
It can be done well, as Broadchurch‘s third series so recently proved. Liar shares some of the same ideas – it takes place in an idyllic coastal town where everyone seems to know each other, and plays with the idea that rapists are usually someone their victim knows fairly well. Andrew is a well-respected surgeon, which gives him a power and credibility.
But it’s hard not to balk at the very concept that we should be discussing whether a woman is lying about her rape, in a time when sexual assault can’t even prevent men from being elected president of the United States, one of the best and biggest albums of the year has come from a woman who has failed to free her career from the clutches of her abuser, and Hollywood stars accused of domestic violence remain at the top of their game.
The question isn’t always, ‘can we?’, but, ‘should we?’.
The story’s potential conclusion troubles me most. I honestly can’t entertain a reality in which Liar ends with Laura having lied about her assault because of some mental health issue or revenge scheme – that’d be irredeemable. But then, if we find out that Andrew is lying, then why tell this story at all? Most likely is something like what US teen drama Switched at Birth did a few years back, where the answer was left intentionally gray (they were both drunk, neither of them remembered).
During the Q&A following the press screening of Liar, Froggatt pointed out that all thrillers begin with a terrible event that must be unpicked over the course of the series. That’s true, of course, but my issue is that most murder victims are believed. Their murder is not questioned, they are not humiliated by medical examinations and incredulous police officers, and we can assume justice will be done in the end.
This is entertainment, yes, but it also has very real-world consequences that have the potentially to cause great harm. If we believe that art has the potential to change society for good, then we also have to accept that the reverse is true.
Liar is an objectively good and entertaining watch, but it delves into areas that are tricky at best and incredibly harmful at worst. In sincerely hope that the show manages to navigate those waters, but am proceeding with caution.