TV review: ‘Deception’ asks lots of questions — will it answer them?


Meagan Good as Joanna Locasto and Victor Garber as Robert Bowers. (NBC/WILL HART/NBC)
January 4, 2013

At this point in the TV season, deciding which shows to watch is all about logistics.

The DVR may be empty now, but with a slew of January and February premieres, that space will soon be at a premium.

So even if your interest is piqued by “Deception,” an enigmatic, serialized drama premiering Monday night that is one of NBC’s most high-profile midseason offerings, the most important question becomes: Is it worth it?

It’s a question viewers will have to seriously consider before delving into upcoming offerings from the broadcast networks. A host of dark, mysterious dramas are set to make midseason debuts: Fox’s Kevin-Bacon-catching-a-serial-killer series “The Following,” NBC’s Jekyll-and-Hyde-esque “Do No Harm,” ABC’s conspiracy thriller “Zero Hour” and organized crime show “Red Widow.” Even CW gets in on the act with“Cult,” about the dire consequences when fans get too obsessed with a creepy TV series.

The new broadcast options aren’t all dark (NBC is testing its luck with White House sitcom “1600 Penn,” and ABC rolls out two new comedies later this spring), although comedy has fallen on tough times this season.

CBS’s “Partners” was pulled from the schedule, and the status of the network’s second new comedy, “Friend Me,” is up in the air after the death of its co-creator.

NBC saw some mild success with “Go On” and “The New Normal,” but it yanked “Animal Practice” and is completely re-tooling “Up All Night” to be filmed before a live studio audience.

Fox’s “The Mindy Project” and “Ben and Kate” both earned full seasons with ratings that are more passable than blockbuster.

While networks are forever hoping for a hit and acting quicker than ever to cut bait on a flop, is committing time to a complicated show such as “Deception” a smart investment?

In this case, only if you enjoy watching a mystery for mystery’s sake and aren’t expecting to get good answers anytime soon. Oh, and if you’re into absurdly dysfunctional families. And seeing rich people swan around and vaguely threaten each other. There’s a lot of that.

Then you can settle in for what’s sure to be a bumpy, semi-compelling and sometimes unintentionally humorous ride. While watching “Deception” (formerly titled “Infamous,” and before that, “Notorious”) it’s hard to not notice the parallels to ABC’s hit drama “Revenge.” From a dead body in the opening scenes, to the story of scorned woman who embeds herself in a wealthy family to take them down from the inside, it’s sort of “Revenge”-lite, without the inherently likable characters but with about a dozen extra tangled subplots.

In “Deception,” the Scorned Woman character is Joanna Padget Locasto (Meagan Good), an New York police detective wrangled by the FBI to work on a possible homicide investigation. Vivian Bowers, a 32-year-old socialite and party girl, has been found dead on the floor of a hotel room, and no one’s buying that it was due to a drug overdose. That’s because Vivian’s an heiress to the billion-dollar Bowers Pharmaceutical fortune, and her family has been skating around the law for years. The FBI is convinced that this case will finally bring the Bowers family to justice, and since Joanna is Vivian’s former best friend, she’s the perfect person to get close to the family and expose their illegal activities.

The fact that a seasoned cop like Joanna happens to be Vivian’s BFF (at least, before they had a mysterious falling out) is hard to buy, and it’s even more difficult to believe that the Bowers family, with all of its secrets, would so eagerly welcome her into the fold.

Joanna arrives, wearing a wire, for Vivian’s memorial service, armed with a story about an abusive husband who drove her away from home. Almost immediately, the Bowers family patriarch, Robert (Victor Garber), offers Joanna a job as his assistant, and a room in the family’s estate.

Daddy Bowers is either the dumbest possibly evil billionaire chief executive ever, or he’s a sly believer in keeping his enemies closer. The jury’s still out on that one. Either way, this sets the stage for Joanna to move in and poke around, slowly unearthing clues about various misdeeds as she further infiltrates the family. This includes Julian Bowers (Wes Brown), the family’s party boy son who used to be in love with Joanna, and apparently still is. Lesson learned from “Deception” — if a guy buys you a new convertible when your old car breaks down, that’s a sign he’s definitely into you.

Not everyone is thrilled with Joanna’s arrival. Tate Donovan, who is generally saddled with nice guy roles, gets to be the sinister, bitter character we always knew he could be, and it’s a delight. He plays Edward, the older Bowers brother, who was destined for political office until he was accused of raping and murdering a woman 15 years ago. Edward managed to land on his feet (as wealthy, politically-connected people do) and is now chief financial officer of the company, unhappily married with two kids.

As you can tell, there’s a lot going on here — way too much. Though on the surface the show is being marketed as “Who killed Vivian Bowers?” it’s not enough to have one arc on this kind of series. Instead, “Deception” falls prey to the exhaustive method of too-much-storytelling, adding layer upon layer of mini-mysteries and twists until the weary viewer needs a detailed map to keep track — or turns off the show entirely.

Within the first 15 minutes, the potential number of subplots is already in the double digits. How did Vivian die? Who’s the guy who got in her car before she was killed? Why did Vivian and Joanna have a falling out? Is there going to be a love triangle between Julian, Joanna and the FBI agent (Laz Alonso) who recruited her? Does Edward’s wife (Marin Hinkle) know too much about what shady things are happening at Bowers Pharmaceutical? What’s up with Vivian’s teenage, pill-popping sister, Mia (Ella Rae Peck) and her nasty stepmother, Sofia (Katherine LaNasa)?

Although the show tends to forgo character development in favor of throwing in as many stories as possible, the series does improve at filling in the gaps after the pilot episode. (NBC made the first three available for review.) The writers even give us some backstory as to why we should care about family members that don’t seem to like each other all that much.

Plus, there’s some campy dialogue that moves things along. “Vivian was a drug-addicted, narcissistic, black hole of need. Oh, I forgot, she’s dead. Now she’s a saint.” Or a conversation that goes: “Where’s Julian?” “Probably helping a stripper work out her daddy issues.”

If that sounds appealing, take a chance and set the DVR — but there are no promises that the answers to the many, many questions will be anywhere near complete, or even satisfying.

Deception

(One hour) debuts Monday, Jan. 7, at 10 p.m. on NBC.

Emily Yahr is an entertainment reporter and pop culture blogger for the Style section. She joined the Post in May 2008, a week before she graduated from the University of Maryland, and worked on Lisa de Moraes' TV Column and blog.
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