Many TV series over the years have built their romantic foundations on a "Will they/won't they?" dynamic. But Hulu's Tell Me Lies is really going for a "These two really — seriously — shouldn't" kind of vibe.
Based on the 2018 novel by Carola Lovering, Tell Me Lies expands the world and adds new twists and turns but sticks to the central thesis: that the attraction between college students Lily (Grace Van Patten) and Stephen (Jackson White), two determined but damaged survivors who find themselves inexorably drawn to each other when Lily arrives at school, seems inevitably toxic at the core.
"Self-destructive is a very good word for those two," Van Patten tells Metacritic, noting that the characters' flaws make them more fascinating than unlikeable — as well as recognizable.
"When you first meet her, she's so numb and she's so repressed and is in desperate need to feel," the actor continues. "And she meets this guy who completely breaks down her wall and makes her feel all of these new feelings that, I think, she mistakes for love. I loved exploring that because I think everybody has been through that at some point in their life, especially at that age, and I loved getting to dive into that and hopefully tell a story that people could relate to."
The show actually opens eight years after these two met each other and embarked upon a passionate relationship in college, when they reunite at the lavish engagement party of supporting character Bree (Catherine Missal). At that point, it is clear something unpleasant unfolded between Lucy and Stephen in their past, and the 10-episode season then peels back the layers on what, why, and how. And there the audience sees that while the sex, which the show depicts in most erotic terms, is hot and their passions run high, their lack of honestly, calculated infidelities, and unerring ability to hurt one another promises that the relationship will ultimately be poisonous.
"[Stephen] was someone who, on paper, does questionable things and the really simple, fun things," White tells Metacritic. "I want to see if I can make it as relatable and real as possible, so that I can confuse someone how they feel about that person. What I liked about it is the challenge to give someone like that dimensions."
Van Patten and White also needed to zero in on the toxicity between Lucy and Stephen, whose initial meeting at once strikes sparks and suggests an inherent animosity — again, a longtime TV staple, but in this case the darker nature of their rapport leads the way.
"The chemistry and toxicity really go hand in hand," says Van Patten. "And I think it was really important for their initial meeting scene at the frat house to feel like fireworks — to feel like is this going to go someplace beautiful and magical and filled with love, or is it going to go in a complete opposite direction and having the audience be like, 'What is this? What is forming here?' There was an intense chemistry, but there was also a danger element to it as well."
The series also bucks convention when, along with those eight-years-later flash forwards, it offers micro-time jumps in its season-long structure: Each new episode is set roughly a month later than the last, so the audience is even more acutely aware of the evolving nuances of Lucy and Stephen's dynamic, as well as those of the supporting cast of characters whose relationship ups and downs often parallel and punctuate those of the central couple.
"It's a really slow dissection of the characters," says White. "The time jumps are just these amazing ways of showing the consequences of what's happened."
The actors recognize that there will be segments of the audience that will be relentlessly rooting for Lucy and Stephen to make it work as a couple — especially when the crucial Christmas episode digs deeper into the origins of their individual dysfunctions and perhaps even because some viewers will reflect on their own college-age insecurities and emotional baggage and want to cut these kids some slack. But there is still a cautionary tale to recognize.
"I really hope that every person who is watching can understand one person fully...and point out the people in their lives that they can compare it to and hopefully understand that they're all human," says Van Patten. "Especially this type of relationship is unfortunately very common throughout all ages and that they learn about that and can process that."
"And if they can't relate, then I hope they're learning what not to do," says White with a laugh.
Tell Me Lies is streaming now
Get to know Grace Van Patten:
Van Patten most recently appeared in another Hulu adaptation, Nine Perfect Strangers (Metascore: 54), but she has also appeared in Maniac (76), Boardwalk Empire (83), and The Sopranos (94), as well as feature films from Under the Silver Lake (60) to Mayday (45).
Get to know Jackson White:
White recently popped onto the big screen in Ambulance (Metascore: 55) and will soon be seen there again in the new Pet Sematary, but he is best known for television work, including stints on The Middle (71), SEAL Team (57), and Mrs. Fletcher (72).