The branding of “true crime”, the genre that has made millionaires of many Netflix shareholders, might appear tautological. After all, why wouldn’t a crime be “true”? But after centuries of fictionalisation – from Arthur Conan Doyle to Richard Osman – “true crime”, a genre popularised in the last decade, felt like a rebellion against convention. No locked rooms, no moustachioed detectives, no red herrings – and a focus, finally, on crime as it impacts its victims. The Following Events are Based on a Pack of Lies is, as it says, not true crime. Instead, this twisty BBC One thriller learns the lessons of the genre and nimbly transposes them onto an overwrought imagined canvas.
Alice (Rebekah Staton) leads a quiet life in Oxford with her partner, son and elderly father. But the simplicity of this existence is punctured when she recognises a man on the street, purporting to be a “disruptive explorer” called Robert Chance (Alistair Petrie). She identifies him as her ex-husband – who ran off with the family money – and notes, with increasing horror, that this cuckoo is about to strike again. “Whatever it is, it’s a long way from dodgy property scams,” Alice observes, as Robert cosies up to bestselling fantasy author Cheryl Harker (Marianne Jean-Baptiste).
This is the central dance of the show: Alice investigating Robert while Robert attempts to divest Cheryl of her fortune. Staton’s Alice is dealing with the residual trauma of their marriage, a frustrating dead-end job, and caring for her father. But she becomes consumed by solving the mystery of Robert’s reappearance, and the delicately held together threads of her life begin to fray. “I just want you to stop, Alice,” begs her partner Benjy (Julian Barratt) as her absences from the family home become longer, the risks she’s taking, greater.
All this might make The Following Events are Based on a Pack of Lies sound quite hard hitting, but the tone is at times frothy. The extraordinary narrative is built like a pastiche of the true crime anthology Dirty John, with a heightened, almost comedic, tone. Far from being purely sinister, Petrie’s Robert is a bit of a buffoon: he abseils into a self-congratulatory event wearing a kilt, which, naturally, somehow ends up over his head. Alice, too, flits around Oxford in a luminous pink cape, an avenging angel clad in fuchsia.
Supporting stars, like Derek Jacobi’s Attenborough-esque mentor and Romola Garai’s demonic fashion designer boss (“The police won’t take kindly to a university man diddling poor people!”) are blocked out in brash primary colours.
But the tone of Pack of Lies is not consistent. Just as The Tinder Swindler – a hit Netflix documentary dealing with similar themes – veered between the cartoonish audacity of the villain and the impact of the crimes on his victims, so too does sister writing duo Penelope and Ginny Skinner’s script. Attempted dog homicide might be played for laughs, but gaslighting and domestic abuse are taken seriously. The result is a show that often feels tonally and aesthetically like a comedy, but is, materially, a tragedy.
It is, perhaps, the effect of basing the events of The Following Events are Based on a Pack of Lies on a “pack of lies”. In a world of televisual commissioning that draws so heavily on non-fiction resources, it’s refreshing to watch something entirely novel. There is no podcast to listen back to, no Wikipedia page to draw spoilers from. This allows the narrative to bend to the Skinners’ will – and the demands of a primetime BBC One slot – though it also leaves the show as uneven as some of my local road surfaces (I hope the council are reading this). The performances, particularly from Staton, are brimming with life – and Petrie has the ability to chill with a stare – but the show never quite decides what story it wants to tell. A zippy tale of a woman reclaiming her autonomy? The startling account of a brazen con artist? Or a harrowing depiction of systematic domestic abuse?
When The Following Events are Based on a Pack of Lies goes off the rails, it does so out of a surplus of ambition, rather than a paucity. Which is the right way for things to be, even if the consequence – a derailment – is the same. Staton and Petrie relish the cat-and-mouse game, and, in its lighter moments, the show is full of vim. But as the gaslights are dimmed, so too does the crux of the story become harder to keep in focus.