There’s a potentially rich, pulpy story lurking in NBC’s new drama “Deception,” and also one that could touch on issues of privilege, class and race if it wished.
Three episodes in, the show doesn’t wish to delve into those thorny subjects. But it also takes itself too seriously to be the kind of over-the-top nighttime soap that NBC’s marketing campaign would have you think it is. If it chooses one lane or the other, the cast is good enough and the premise strong enough to carry it. Right now, though, “Deception” (premiering at 10 p.m. ET Monday on NBC) is a show that doesn’t know what it is.
The story starts with the death of Vivian Bowers, the socialite daughter of billionaire Robert Bowers (Victor Garber). San Francisco Detective Joanna Locasto (Meagan Good), who grew up in the Bowers home — her mother worked for the family — and was very close to Vivian when they were kids, is recruited by her ex-boyfriend, FBI Agent Will Moreno (Laz Alonso) to go undercover at the Bowers home in New York to see what she can find out about Vivian’s death.
(And no, the FBI typically does not investigate deaths. It’s explained that the bureau is already looking into the family for other possible shady dealings. Shaky, but good enough for TV.)
Joanna returns for the funeral and sticks around a while, uncovering secrets about Vivian, the family’s pharmaceutical business and more. The family — chiefly eldest son Edward (Tate Donovan) and Robert’s second wife, Sofia (Katherine LaNasa) — also starts to wonder why she’s hanging around so much.
Oh, and Joanna also rekindles her romance with Robert’s son Julian (Wes Brown), who is both a brilliant medical mind and a dissolute party boy.
For all that, though, “Deception” is a pretty somber affair in the early going. Other than LaNasa, who is clearly having fun animating the embittered Sofia, and occasionally Donovan, everyone plays their characters at a very low ebb. There’s lots of staring at feet and pensive looks, but not much, you know, action.
Joanna, alas, is at the center of the non-action. The emotions Joanna feels as she re-enters the Bowers orbit play wonderfully on Good’s face, but she spends way too much time in the first two episodes having things happen to and around her rather than having any agency herself. That starts to change a bit in episode 3, and yes, Joanna is there to observe and report, but it’s usually better to have your main character be the one moving the story.
The fact that Joanna is swept along with the story early on may also be what keeps “Deception” from doing any more than skimming along any exploration of class differences or race (Joanna is black, the Bowerses white). It doesn’t have to offer deep social commentary in the way that, say, “Treme” does, but to set up the show this way and then just ignore those ideas is leaving a lot of potential storytelling on the table.
There are hints toward the end of episode 2 and in episode 3 that the cast and writers are loosening up a little. The pace quickens (a little, anyway), and the plot turns are faster and sharper. That bodes well for “Deception” — maybe it will figure out what it wants to be after all. It had better — viewers aren’t likely to wait too long for that kind of thing.