A few weekends ago, as I was getting ready to go out, I received a horrifying text message from my mother: “I started watching Tell Me Lies.” For any girl who just started college, if your mom sends you this same text, you should scream, panic, and very quickly change your family’s Hulu password.
Tell Me Lies, the new Hulu series based on the novel by Carola Lovering, tells the story of Lucy (Grace Van Patten), an 18–year–old girl, as she starts her freshman year of college. While this premise may seem benign, Tell Me Lies is a dark, atypical coming–of–age story that is anything but wholesome collegiate fun.
From the jump, many elements of Tell Me Lies will be clocked as fantastical by even the most naive of college students. Lucy immediately forms a friend group on move–in day, composed of her, her roommate Macy (Lily McInerny), and another set of roommates down the hall, Pippa (Sonia Mena) and Bree (Catherine Missal). Not only does this foursome become attached on day one, but they are all still connected eight years later in the show’s present–day timeline.
In addition to Lucy’s immediate friend group, she and her friends find themselves romantically involved with a group of junior boys. Pippa is already linked to football jock Wrigley (Spencer House) when she shows up on campus, after meeting him on her tour of the school (because that’s totally a thing that happens). And like all shows about college and high school, everyone is 30 and impossibly beautiful.
The show’s main focus is on the tumultuous, semi–masochistic relationship between Lucy and Stephen DeMarco (Jackson White), Wrigley’s best friend. While Lucy’s and Stephen’s relationship is in many ways utterly unrealistic, the emotional torment that Lucy undergoes at the hands of Stephen is unfortunately very real.
Lucy and Stephen meet at a frat party, and in their first conversation, Stephen says to Lucy, “You look really uncomfortable in that dress.” Although he follows this remark by telling her she looks hot, Stephen is immediately targeting Lucy’s insecurities and then pulling her into a false sense of validation. This one–two punch becomes a staple of their courtship.
Stephen also refuses to establish a committed relationship with Lucy for months, not wanting to be seen at parties with her, and still maintaining an on–and–off relationship with his ex–girlfriend Diana (Alicia Crowder) at the same time. Without spoiling the show, almost everything Stephen tells Lucy is a lie, and while Lucy is clearly a smart, confident person at the show’s beginning, he breaks her down and crumbles her self–assuredness.
Lucy’s relationship with Stephen is definitely not romanticized, but the show’s centering on their sexual dynamic does glorify the toxicity of the pairing. Lucy’s attraction to Stephen is initially very physical, and every episode includes at least one or two sex scenes, even if it’s not necessary for the episode’s narrative. The scenes are intense, and many of them are followed by huge blow–up fights between the two—usually ending in Lucy crying or apologizing.
The focus of sex, which is portrayed as satisfying for both of them but especially for Lucy, sends a poor message that a toxic, emotionally abusive relationship is the only type of relationship that can render sexual gratification.
The concern of critics that the show is promoting this type of toxic relationship was addressed by Van Patten in an interview with Harper’s Bazaar. When asked about glorifying toxic relationships, Van Patten commented that “[the cast and crew] really didn't want to portray the message that this is what love is like,” but rather as “a cautionary tale and, in a way, comfort hopefully for people who have been in those situations and can connect to it.” She added that the show will hopefully inspire others to leave those toxic relationships.
The show’s conclusion makes it clear that Stephen is not a good guy, but Lucy has definitely not moved past their relationship, and he is still involved in her friend group in the present–day. For people in college, Tell Me Lies does demonstrate how a flurry of emotions combined with an “adult” intensity—that a lot of college students may think they’re ready for—may be a problematic relationship, not an exciting one.
By the end of the show, there are no questions or qualms regarding whether or not Stephen is a liar or just “misunderstood.” However, the show, through its sexual exploitation of the central relationship, does not definitively take a stance on whether or not the road to ruin was worth it for Lucy, setting forth an ambiguous moral ground that might confuse some girls (and make their parents take a spontaneous trip to campus “just to check in”). To students and parents alike, tread lightly when watching Tell Me Lies, and know that if a guy tells you that you look uncomfortable in your dress, it may be a guy you can pass on.