The word “liar” is an especially loaded one when used in the context of rape and sexual assault. The new Sundance TV series Liar knows that and uses it to make an important point about how these kinds of cases are handled in our society. The six-episode psychological thriller focuses on a rape allegation and how it’s perceived from the outside. Specifically, how feelings, opinions, and preconceived notions can get in the way of finding the truth about what really happened in sexual assault cases.
The premiere, which aired Sept. 27, introduces viewers to Laura Nielson (Downton Abbey’s Joanna Froggatt), a teacher who just ended a serious relationship, and Andrew Earlham (Unreal’s Ioan Gruffold), a surgeon who is raising his teenage son on his own after he lost his wife. The two know each other — Andrew works with Laura’s sister, his son is in Laura’s class — but not that well. They decide to go out on a date, which is shown in a series of flashbacks. They go out to dinner, they have a few drinks, they take a walk on the pier. From where we’re sitting, we’re under the assumption that the date goes well. That is until the morning after, when Laura accuses Andrew of rape.
The alleged assault is never shown in the first episode. Instead, viewers hear both Laura and Andrew’s side of what happened that night. The two have differing accounts of whether their sexual interaction was consensual or not. Laura says that she had said no and he didn't listen. Andrew admits that he initiated the act, but claims that she never told him to stop at any point. The show doesn’t tip its hat in one direction or the other. Instead, Liar lets its viewers decide for themselves whose story they believe. Who is the liar?
That is, of course, the million-dollar question and it’s one that the creators and writers, brothers Harry and Jack Williams (The Missing and Fleabag), promised during a panel at the 2017 TribecaTV Festival would be answered by the fourth episode of the series. Before that answer, though, the Williams brothers want viewers to think about why it is they believe one character over the other.
"Sometimes people believe their own lies and it's hard not to believe them. Sometimes the truth is something you say loudly and when repeated, it soaks in and others believe it," Jack Williams said, with Harry later adding that in these sexual assault and rape cases it's ultimately a debate. "It's one person's word against another," he said, "And we want to show how damaging that is."
Over the course of Liar’s first episode you’re likely to question everything you thought you knew about both Laura and Andrew, and that’s the point, according to the writers. During the TribecaTV Festival panel, Harry Williams said, "People love taking sides. It's a weird thing, people want to have teams," but when you're dealing with three-dimensional characters, a person isn't good or bad, but something more complex.
On the surface, both characters look like honest, stand-up people who have loving families and good jobs, but first impressions can be deceiving. Later in the episode we learn that Andrew's wife’s passing was ruled a suicide and now, there’s a question of whether that’s true. The fact that Laura was drinking that night comes up throughout the episode. Laura's also worried that because she had been on medication, for what we don't know yet, she thinks that a judge and jury will assume the worst about her. All of these little details are meant to keep you wondering if Laura and Andrew are hiding something, but also make you question your own judgments — because if Laura's right that people will assume the worst, viewers may be doing so as well.
They also act as red herrings. With each reveal of Laura and Andrew’s past, the Williams brothers are forcing you to question the way rape cases are handled. Unfortunately, so much of these cases is based on opinion, of whether the jury approves of a person’s behavior before, during, and after the alleged assault. In the case of Liar, we, the viewers, are the jury and are looking for clues in Laura and Andrew's behavior that could reveal the truth. And, as in the show, in these real life cases, victims are sadly as much on trial as their accusers.
In 2012, Meredith Donovan, a former prosecutor with the New York City Law Department, wrote for the New York Daily News about why convictions in sex crimes are so hard to get. She wrote that, unlike other crimes, obtaining physical or direct evidence can be difficult in these cases. These crimes often take place behind closed doors, there is often no video to prove what happened, it often comes down to he said, she said. It puts a lot of pressure on victims to tell their story in a way so that people will believe them. As Donovan explained, victims of rape and sexual assault typically have to:
"Answer questions, knowing that people are judging you. Think about the last time you had sex. Tell a room full of people about every touch, sight, sound, smell and taste of that experience. Answer questions, knowing that people are trying to decide if you’re lying."
Pressure and fear, among other things, is often cited as to why victims often don’t report these kinds of crimes. According to RAINN’s statistics, two out of three sexual assaults go unreported with the number one reason being fear of retaliation.
Laura does go to the police in Liar, who start off by being sympathetic to her story. But after hearing Andrew’s side, they start to ask things like how much she had to drink — the implication being that Laura’s judgment was impaired and she might not remember what really happened that night. It's exactly what she feared would happen. She already knew her behavior would be in constant question by everyone involved with the case, but it's also in question by everyone watching the show.
That being said, taking sides is something Liar clearly welcomes. Sundance has been tweeting teasers like “Is Laura as innocent as she looks?” and “Handsome surgeon. Loving father. Lonely widower. Retweet if you believe him” in the lead up to the premiere.
There's a case to be made that these ads are disrespectful to victims of sexual assault by implying that Laura could be lying. But these tweets are also a clever way of pointing out how rape is a crime that is too often left to the court of public opinion.
In these kinds of cases, people do judge someone by how they look or what they were wearing. In the show, viewers are asked to think about whether they trust a teacher more than a doctor? That could be a reason why someone believes Laura. Or, are you someone who believes rape is less likely to be committed by someone a victim knows? Then maybe you believe Andrew. (For the record, RAINN reported that seven out of ten rapes are committed by someone the victims knows.) What is your definition of “consent”? That could be a deciding factor in who you believe.
What it seems Liar is really looking to do is start a conversation about how we handle rape cases and how we talk about sexual assault in general. It wants to entertain, but it also wants to get people talking — and it makes the case that you can do both by showing how dangerous it is to make a decision without knowing all the facts first.
Who is the liar on Liar? In less than six episodes that will be revealed, but the show’s creators want the conversation surrounding sexual assault to continue long after the show's central mystery ends.