Saturday, September 08, 2018

Review: Sacred Lies on Facebook Watch

There's a line early in Facebook Watch's Sacred Lies when the FBI shrink says to the traumatized and distrustful heroine, "I'm interested in why people do terrible things to each other in the name of religion."

If you pick up on that statement as the show's whole premise, you'll be a lot happier than if you come to it expecting a teen drama or a horror story, although it uses tropes from both those genres to tell its story.

I binge-watched the whole show over the past few days. I know, I'm as shocked as you are. Initially I thought the hook was somewhat gratuitous (handless girl arrested for murder!) until I learned that the series was based on a book which was a retelling of the Grimms' tale 'The Handless Maiden."

I'm always on board for a Grimms' retelling because they are so relentlessly dark, even beneath the slather of Christian piety. This one has a miller (accidentally) bargaining his daughter away to the devil, and then hacking off her hands rather than take her place as the devil's victim. But she's so pious and forgiving God makes her hands grow back after seven years.

So far the only happy ending in sight for the show is Minnow's own search for self-actualization. Incredibly, the show seems to be aiming for a PG-13 rating despite the horrific things going on off-screen—sexual abuse, animal abuse, forced marriage, self-harm, torture and manipulation in the name of religion—these things are discussed or alluded to with glancing matter-of-factness and no one using language stronger than "crap." Frankly, the subject matter is sensational enough that any attempts to make it "grittier" would push it into exploitation.

I mean you've got girls in prison, many of whom have been sexually abused, most of them with physical scars, and our heroine is in shock from having her world burnt down and adapting to a challenging new disability. I've read at least one review condemning the handling of that disability—the camera lingering over all the everyday objects that are designed for five-finger use, the jokes and questions by the other inmates, Minnow's rage over what was done to her. To those critics I say, leave your agenda at the door, dude—the girl's in shock; her reactions and those of the people around her are nothing less than accurate and worthy of attention.

And while we're on the subject of representation, I kept noticing the diversity in this show. The FBI shrink is black, the local sheriff appears to be a First Nations woman (and gay), Minnow's cell mate is an indeterminate shade of not-white (?)with probable lesbian-leanings, and all the secondary characters in the prison are a Russell Stover assortment of races, sexualities, and religions. And although Minnow makes the remark that she's not used to being around "so many different people" it's merely a facet of her world expanding; she's long suspected that the world she grew up in was a false one, and she's eager to broaden her horizons.

What is a plot point (slight spoiler here, although you see it coming way early) is that Minnow's cult is racist—they claim black people have dark skin because God burnt out their souls—and when she falls in love with Jude, a young black man, the cultists lose their shit. But I like the way this plot point is handled: the discovery of their relationship moves the plot forward, but it also furthers everyone's character development; nobody makes any big speeches about it or "learns" anything from it, there's no "very special" episode, it's just a thread woven into the whole. Other critics have harped on this lack of "learning moments," as it were—for instance wanting more "exploration" about how low-income white folk tend to be racist—but I really didn't see a need. The writers treat their audience as intelligent enough to infer and keep up.

It's not perfect. The dialogue is a touch didactic at times, although this is clearly for the audience's benefit because the show has a lot of psychological concepts to unpack; frequently the FBI psychologist serves as the narrative voice of this dark fairy tale but actor Kevin Carroll carries off the dialogue so naturally that I found myself intrigued in much the same way as when I was watching Mindhunter.

The show is plugged as drama/horror on IMDB, which is accurate enough if you consider human evil horrific, as I do. But as I watched this the horror was mixed with sadness and anger, mostly at the self-servingness of institutions and structures that consume women and girls. I've seen enough religious fanaticism to believe I could all-too-easily find myself in the same situation as Minnow, especially with the direction the country has taken lately.

For a deeper exploration of the themes of the story, this review of the book is excellent, and from what I can tell applies to the TV series as well.