Pack of Lies review: BBC thriller takes big swings, many of which hit
This unique thriller should be applauded for its audacity, even if some of its intentions don't quite come off.
Before you've even seen a frame of The Following Events are Based on a Pack of Lies, you know you're in for something quite unique.
That inordinately long title alone should tell you that this is a drama which won't be playing by the rules, and will have an off-beat, curious sensibility, trying to give you something new in an increasingly crowded TV market.
Thankfully, that distinctive feel permeates throughout the series, giving it a sense of daring. The series takes some big swings and in doing so hits big a lot of the time - it's just that, as is to be expected, that doesn't mean all of the time.
The show, which we'll call Pack of Lies for brevity and sanity purposes, centres around three individuals - Alice, Cheryl and Rob, played by Rebekah Staton, Marianne Jean-Baptiste and Alistair Petrie respectively.
Rob is a conman, and a very proficient and insidious one at that. He enters people's lives, takes their money, their dignity, their trust, and then vanishes. He already did this to Alice, who he married 15 years ago before disappearing without a trace, leaving Alice and her family penniless.
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However, when Alice spots him again one day by chance, she follows him, and finds he is about to enact the same treatment on one Cheryl Harker, a wealthy and celebrated fantasy author who is still grieving her late husband.
First things first, this isn't like any other conman series you have seen or are likely to see in a very long while, most crucially because of the way it treats its central trio.
Rob is not a glamorous, impressive figure - sure, he's played by Alistair Petrie, so he has a great deal of charm, enough that you easily understand why it is that so many people fall for his tricks. But he's not in any way idolised. He's a villainous, enraging figure, wholly lacking in empathy and overwhelmed by self-interest.
Meanwhile, neither Alice nor Cheryl are presented as stupid or gullible in any way. The series takes its time to lay out exactly how Rob does what he does so we can see and understand the process.
As he worms his way into Cheryl's life, she isn't foolhardy - she persistently tries to detect falsehoods and extract herself from murky situations. It's just that Rob has no bones about doing whatever it takes to sell a story.
This is a series ultimately about manipulation, gaslighting and distortion of the truth, and it analyses those themes meticulously, with real depth and clarity of thought.
So that's one big tick in the show's corner, while another is its distinctive visual style. The use of colour is a particular marvel, with bright pinks, greens and bold shades splashed across every frame like pop art.
Because of Cheryl's background in fantasy, the series also draws in iconography and tropes from the genre, helping to heighten the show's reality and that off-beat texture while not detracting from the more tragic, darker sequences. All of this culminates in a bravura, eye-popping finale which really has to be seen to be believed.
Where the series at times struggles to match its execution with its ambition is in its tone and pacing.
Right from the outset, the show takes on a big challenge - present a fun and engaging look at the workings of a con artist, while also stressing the harrowing, life-ruining experiences of the victims.
In order to do this, the show has opted to give the viewer an experience of what it's like to be manipulated in this fashion, darting between the highs of the alluring lie and the lows which come with the realisation of what has befallen you.
Now, tonal experimentation is a welcome prospect, and the series should be admired for taking on this task. However, there are times when this approach is just too jarring, giving the viewer emotional whiplash.
It also impacts the pacing - naturally the brighter, pop-infused sequences where an elaborate ruse is underway are energetic and fast-moving, while the sequences acknowledging Alice's trauma slow things down to a grinding halt.
It's a persistent issue across all five episodes. However, if any other series is thinking of trying to run this gamut of emotions with any hopes of pulling it off, then they better hope they have a cast as talented as this one.
The central trio are all immensely well-cast, with Petrie pulling off both alluring charisma and despicable villainy with aplomb, while Staton is supremely empathetic as Alice and Jean-Baptiste is effortlessly classy as Cheryl.
Meanwhile, supporting players such as Karl Johnson and Romola Garai are scene-stealers throughout, and Sir Derek Jacobi adds a real pedigree to the whole show, in a part which viewers will likely still be dissecting after the final credits roll.
When it comes down to it, the series is eminently watchable, with some truly stand-out moments, performances and set-pieces.
It's also an easy show to root for - who wouldn't want more series like this, that do something different even if it doesn't all quite come off, rather than more of the same bland dramas we've seen a hundred times before?
Tonal and pacing issues aside, Pack of Lies offers a new angle of a well-worn story and does so with both style and intellectual integrity - and for that, it should be applauded.
The Following Events are Based on a Pack of Lies will launch with weekly episodes on BBC One from 29th August. All episodes will be available on BBC iPlayer. Looking for something else to watch? Visit our TV Guide and Streaming Guide or take a look at the rest of our Drama coverage.
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