The premise of Liar is simple: high school teacher Laura Nielsen (Joanne Froggatt) goes out on a lovely date with Andrew Earlham (Ioan Gruffud) a cardio-thoracic surgeon. He's a catch, they hit it off, and end up back at her apartment. And the next morning, Laura wakes up convinced that Andrew raped her.
What's not so simple is pretty much everything else: Did Andrew do it? Is one (or both) of them lying? And what's going on between Laura's sister and her ex-boyfriend?
Over its six episodes, the show, which premiered on Sundance Wednesday night, attempts to answer all these questions, which makes for very interesting television.
But one thing that stood out for me is that, for a show that hinges entirely on an accusation of rape, we never actually see one — or any sex scene for that matter.
On the one hand, the fact that we as viewers feel Laura's trauma so strongly throughout the show, is a reminder that it's not essential to show sexual violence in order to understand its impact. Game of Thrones creators David Benioff and Drew Weiss told Time Magazine earlier this year that they were unable to think of a twist of fate that would avoid Sansa being raped by Ramsey Bolton. But what isn't obvious is: Was it really necessary to show it onscreen? There are many times in Liar where a flashback to some kind of sexual violence scene would have been expected — in fact, I braced myself for them. And yet, none came, and I never felt like the show was lacking a dramatic element because of it.
Granted, this serves the narrative: You can't know who is lying about a rape you never see. It keeps the action focused on the he said/she said aspect of the plot, which also highlights how difficult it is for women to prove an accusation of sexual assault when it's just their word against someone else's.
"Well, that’s the thing, it’s not really a show about rape," Joanne Froggatt told Refinery29 during a recent interview. "A thriller is always based on a tragic, awful event. And in this case, the tragic awful event is an accusation of date rape. That’s what I also really liked about Jack and Harry [Williams]’ script: it’s never salacious, there’s no sex scenes whatsoever, either violent or otherwise. You don’t want something to be controversial just for controversy’s sake, that doesn’t interest me. but I don’t shy away from something that might be controversial for the right reasons."
And Liar has been controversial. In the United Kingdom, where the three episodes of the show have already aired, Twitter has been exploding with reactions, both positive and negative. Here's the thing: when a series' entire plot hinges on the fact that it's possible an alleged victim is lying about her assault, is that damaging to real-life rape survivors?
What's interesting is that by posing the question, Liar almost transcends TV into a real-life debate about sexual assault, with Twitter acting as a mouthpiece for both sides of the debate. As one viewer pointed out, there are an overwhelming number of women accusing Laura of lying, something the character experiences on the show in a later episode.
On the flip side, the show also does an excellent job of showing how people who are falsely accused of rape (which, it must be noted, is much more rare than people actually being raped) are instantly labeled as sex offenders by a public who doesn't know who to believe.
Froggatt is aware of the controversy, and in fact, she applauds it. As someone who has played a survivor of sexual assault before (Anna Bates, her character on Downton Abbey, was violently assaulted in the show's fourth season and never got justice) she welcomes more discussion on a subject that she sees as "still taboo in our society."
"I was nervous about Liar airing," she said during our chat. "I was really pleased with how it turned out. But I really was hoping so much for the reaction that we’ve had. The reaction’s been ever better and more widespread than I could have imagined. But it is a risk, doing something that’s controversial. I don’t ever want to not do something because I’m scared of what people will or won’t say.... It was a thought process, going in, like ‘ Are people going to be sort of negative, am I going to get negativity for approaching this subject matter again?’ And then I thought, that’s not a reason not to do a job. I have to do it."
I won't give away the ending here. What I will say is that at the end of the six episodes, viewers will find definite closure on who is, in fact, the liar. And it's well worth the journey to find out.
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