If you’re a person who’s spent any real time treading the increasingly murky and complex YA waters over the last decade, Facebook Watch’s newest scripted original series, Sacred Lies, will, in both subject and execution, feel entirely familiar.
If you’re a person for whom “YA” invokes only images of love triangles, high school melodrama, and moody teens reacting to terminal cancer, vampire infestations, and alien apocalypses with self-centered distraction—you know, the tropes that even the most interesting of teen television in the last decade has felt obligated to retain, at least in part—then the stylistically spare, inherently unromantic, melodrama-free darkness of Sacred Lies might be more than a little disorienting. And that’s before taking the raw viscerality of Elena Kampouris’ handless Minnow Bly into consideration.
Yes: Handless. The protagonist in Sacred Lies—which is based on Stephanie Oakes’ 2015 YA debut, The Sacred Lies of Minnow Bly—is a teenage girl whose hands, at some point shortly before she escaped from a cult that she may or may not have set fire to, were chopped off with a hatchet, then stowed in the front pockets of her dirty, bloody coat.
This is not an elaboration on the source material, some mild detail made extra grisly for television (well, Facebook) screens—it is straight from Oakes’ original. As is the direly realistic Kevinian cult from which Minnow (we are at least led to believe) escaped. As is the economic anxiety (and all the coded baggage that phrase contains) that led her family’s entire trailer park to up and follow the cult’s Prophet (Toby Huss) in the first place. As is the mundanely bleak, morally gray truth of life in the “real world” that Minnow faces as she lands in juvenile detention after violently assaulting an escaped schizophrenic kid on her first night outside the cult’s forested walls—that is, that life can be just as unkind, if in infinitely unique ways, to any girl, regardless of whether she was raised in a polygynous cult, forbidden from learning to read, or mutilated by (again, we are at least led to believe) her own father.
If this isn’t the YA you thought you knew, well, I invite you to head down to your local public library, because Oakes is no outlier. Laurie Halse Anderson, Julie Berry, E.K. Johnston, Stephanie Kuehn, Melina Marchetta, Mindy McGinnis, Jason Reynolds, Leslye Walton, Elizabeth Wein, Jeff Zentner—any one of these authors will give you a story as real and challenging and void of romantic melodrama as Minnow Bly’s. They might also have given you a TV series as compellingly unconventional and ready to break into the transitioning prestige space as Sacred Lies, had any network before the mostly untested Facebook Watch had the imagination to see the untapped potential in this particular corner of stories for and about teens.
Yes, I did just invoke that exhausting Golden Age bugaboo. But while I’m not saying that prestige is the only way for a show to be good, and I’m definitely not saying Sacred Lies will end up being as good as Sharp Objects, The Handmaid’s Tale, Killing Eve, Fleabag, or any of the other dark, female-led dramas that have broken into the prestige game the last couple years (honestly, the longer I do this job, the less sure I am how to determine if any show, on any platform, is good), I saw nothing in the two episodes provided for review that suggested it shouldn’t at least be included in the same conversations critics and fans alike are having about the next evolution of prestige television. I mean, with Kampouris seething unsettlingly through every one of Minnow’s possibly duplicitous scenes, Kevin Carroll cannily putting pieces together as the FBI forensic psychologist on Minnow’s case, and Kiana Madeira insulting her way into Minnow’s possible confidences as her rudely honest cellmate, Angel, it’s got performances strong enough to compete. With a production team pedigree that includes Get Out, True Blood, Roots, Good Girls Revolt, My So-Called Life, Californication, and even, no joke, Sharp Objects, it’s got more than enough prestige-adjacent experience behind the camera. And—not that this should still be a requirement for a series to be labeled “prestige”—with a bleak, explicitly gendered violent mystery at its core, which, as a bonus, is shot with twice the color saturation as Minnow’s frustratingly tight-lipped present, it might even be called art.
That’s not me being sarcastic. It is very artistic, not just in the color saturation, but in every shot of hands, fingers, and things that need hands and fingers to cross Minnow’s line of sight in the detention center—shots that would feel fetishizing were it not for the absolute opacity of thought with which the shrewd Minnow, who is never presented as an object of pity, regards them. It is absolutely artistic. It is also grim. It is also an active, challenging watch. it is, as far as I can tell, all the things everyone’s favorite dark prestige television is.
It is also a show about a teenage girl, based on a YA book about a teenage girl, premiering on Facebook Watch, of all places, right on the heels of that platform’s successful launch of Gen X’s Platonic Ideal of a show about a teenage girl. It is, in other words, the furthest thing from what dark prestige television has historically been allowed to be, on a platform and in a context likely to be furthest from where fans of dark prestige television might go looking for their next fix.
It’s hard for me to not get back on my particular brand of bullshit and rant about the frustrating likelihood that this one detail will keep Sacred Lies from reaching the audience that will most appreciate it (like, twelve of my drafts ended in ranty flames), but I’m going to choose to embrace hope over resignation, and see this review as an opportunity to get you fans of dark prestige on board this new dark-prestige-meets-teen-TV train. Because, as I said up top, YA made the leap into literary complexity ages ago, and we readers have been all the richer for it. If Sacred Lies can do that leaping in the visual space, the next decade of teen television might be incredible.
Sacred Lies premieres today on Facebook Watch.
Alexis Gunderson is a TV critic whose writing has appeared on Forever Young Adult, Screener, and Birth.Movies.Death. She’ll go ten rounds fighting for teens and intelligently executed genre fare to be taken seriously by pop culture. She can be found @AlexisKG.