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One of Us Is Lying is a Tropey Teen Drama Propelled by a Solid Mystery

Peacock's new series is dripping with homages to its predecessors, from The Breakfast Club to Gossip Girl.
  • Five students get detention on the first day of school. Only four make it out alive. (Photo: Peacock)
    Five students get detention on the first day of school. Only four make it out alive. (Photo: Peacock)

    Peacock’s One of Us Is Lying may be the most derivative teen drama ever produced — and that's saying something for a genre known for trafficking in tropes. The new series is absolutely dripping with homages to its predecessors, including a Gossip Girl-style digital troll, sepia-toned flashbacks that recall Freeform’s Cruel Summer, and more love triangles than you can shake a Beverly Hills, 90210 -shaped stick at. In fact, One of Us Is Lying’s entire premise is built on a tribute to John Hughes’ The Breakfast Club: on the first day of school, five high school students — a brain, an athlete, a princess, a criminal, and a basket case — are given detention, where they’re tasked with writing an essay reflecting on how they ended up in this situation.

    It’s a familiar set up, but don’t expect One of Us Is Lying’s modern-day Brat Pack to ride off into the sunset to the tune of “Don’t You Forget About Me.” Instead, just as the outcast, Simon (Mark McKenna), calls out the “privileged assholes” at school, he goes into anaphylactic shock and collapses. The other students search for an EpiPen, but can’t find one, and by the time the paramedics come, it’s too late. Simon’s death is quickly ruled a homicide and within a few days the other four students in detention are named the primary suspects.

    Much like its genre forebears, One of Us Is Lying, which is based on a bestselling novel by Karen M. McManus, draws viewers in with a reliance on high school stereotypes. We know exactly what to expect when we meet Bronwyn (Marianly Tejada), an academic whose parents nag her about getting into Yale on the first day of school; Cooper (Chibuikem Uche), a jock with something to hide; Addy (Annalisa Cochrane), a popular girl dissatisfied with her relationship; Nate (Cooper van Grootel), the school’s resident drug dealer and undercover romantic; and Simon, a discontented teen who channels his anger into “About That,” a blog where he spills students’ biggest secrets. Practically everyone knows that Simon is behind About That, but with the administration doing little to shut down the site, he’s able to fulfill his so-called “moral duty” unabated — and make plenty of enemies along the way.

    But if The Breakfast Club ultimately destroys the stereotypes at its center, One of Us Is Lying does little to move beyond them. Throughout the drama’s first three episodes, viewers are let in on each character’s secrets, many of which look incriminating in light of Simon’s murder. But these revelations are presented as a means of advancing the plot, not as character development — Addy, for example, cheated on her boyfriend with his best friend, but precious little time is spent exploring why she made this choice. As a result, her new identity becomes “a princess with a secret” (just as Cooper becomes “an athlete with a secret,” and so on), which is just as unhelpful in understanding her character as the original Breakfast Club-inspired label.

    That said, if it’s a twisty mystery you’re after, One of Us Is Lying delivers. The drama’s central mystery is compelling, and the plotting convinvincingly makes it seem as if any of the four central characters could have killed Simon (or perhaps it was all of them, together). To make things even more interesting, someone resurrects About That shortly after Simon’s death, and Bronwyn, Cooper, Addy, and Nate begin pointing fingers at one another as each of their secrets are revealed. One of Us Is Lying is so effective at building up viewers’ skepticism that even when we learn who’s behind the new posts, we question it, as it quickly becomes clear that nothing will truly be revealed until the drama’s final minutes.

    One of Us Is Lying also succeeds in drawing viewers into its many romances. Despite dialogue that sounds like it was written by AI that mainlined 100 hours of 13 Reasons Why, the four main stars turn out solid performances, particularly van Grootel and Tejada, whose characters establish an unlikely bond. Meanwhile, Addy has the difficult task of choosing between two very beautiful boys, Jake (Barrett Carnahan, who also appeared in Cruel Summer), and TJ (George Ferrier), and Cooper, who fears coming out as gay will harm his baseball career, uses a fake relationship to hide his true identity. I’ll confess to being an easy sell when it comes to teenage romance, but each of these storylines add some color to a narrative that might otherwise get bogged down by its central puzzle.

    Peacock’s One of Us Is Lying won't be challenging The Crown or Succession in the Best Drama race any time soon, but for many viewers, its familiar tropes and winding mystery will be enough to make up for its flaws. After three episodes, I was hooked, desperate to find out who killed Simon, and why the brain and the criminal are taking so long to kiss.

    One of Us Is Lying premieres Thursday, October 7 on Peacock. Three episodes drop today, followed by three more episodes next Thursday and the final two on October 21.

    Claire Spellberg Lustig is the TV Editor at Primetimer and a scholar of The View. Follow her on Twitter at @c_spellberg.

    TOPICS: One of Us Is Lying, Peacock, Annalisa Cochrane, Chibuikem Uche, Cooper van Grootel, Karen M. McManus, Marianly Tejada, Mark McKenna