'Deception': Whodunit and Why?

Nsenga K. Burton Ph.D.
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Cast of NBC's Deception (J.R. Mankoff/NBC)

(The Root) — Deception, a new drama series on NBC that premieres Monday night, is a typical whodunit with an atypical main character. It stars Meagan Good (Think Like a Man, Eve's Bayou) as Joanna Locasto, a black, female detective who goes undercover to find out who killed her childhood best friend, heiress Vivian Bowers.

As revealed in its pilot preview that has been featured online, the Bowers are an über-wealthy family that appears to have everything most people want: copious amounts of money, fame and good looks. The family, however, is mired in conflict, duplicity, fear and loathing on so many levels that it is only a matter of time before the public facade cracks and the private hell in which they live is exposed.

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Joanna had the privilege (and pain) of growing up with the family while her mother worked as a maid at the Bowers' estate. FBI agent Will Moreno (Laz Alonso) enlists Joanna to help him find out what really happened to Vivian, whose death is being reported as a drug overdose. Joanna initially resists deceiving the family she loves so much, but Will, who is also her former lover, wears her down, setting a plan into motion to get information on the Bowers that will help solve the crime.

The plan sounds simple enough, except that each person in the family has a perfect motive for the crime. Patriarch Robert Bowers (Victor Garber) welcomes Joanna back into the family with open arms, hiding the fact that Vivian was poised to expose a secret that could have ruined the family business.

Vivian's brother Edward Bowers (Tate Donovan) is missing a sensitivity chip, to say the least, and has already taken a life and gotten away with it. Vivian's other brother, Julian Bowers (Wes Brown), is a young, hot playboy who still has feelings for Joanna, whom he used to "date" when she lived on the estate.

The problem is that Julian had the most to lose if the secret that Vivian was harboring ever came to light. Sophia (Katherine LaNasa), the second Mrs. Bowers, is a cold, calculating woman whose bite is as bad as her bark. She clearly hated Vivian and, along with Edward, doesn't trust Joanna as far as she can throw her. Add little sister Mia Bowers (Ella Rae Peck), who is Vivian's doppelgänger, and a paparazzo who blows Joanna's cover almost immediately, and there should be enough suspense to keep you tuned in.

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While the show succeeds in keeping the conventions of a typical whodunit in place and challenging those conventions by casting unlikely leads (two young, hot, African-American leads who are solid actors), Deception may have difficulty convincing an audience to return, simply because viewers need to know why they should care about Vivian Bowers. In a world where reality television rules, the novelty of the rich and shameless has pretty much worn off — not to mention the number of programs that have shown just how twisted money and power can make you (e.g., Scandal, Gossip Girls, 666 Park Ave.).

Most of the Bowers clan, including Vivian, has very little likability, so it's difficult to figure out why anyone would care whether Vivian truly died of a drug overdose or was murdered. There's a subplot involving a pharmaceutical scandal that needs more heft and complexity, too.

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And then there's this mystery: Why haven't the Bowers, who seem to be aware of everything, including the meddling paparazzo, thought to find out anything about Joanna, who mysteriously appears on their doorstep years after not having been heard from? And I won't mention the overuse of flashbacks, which are intended to provide a backstory but somehow cheapen the overall story arc.

The emerging love triangle involving Joanna, Will and Julian may prove interesting if former couple Joanna and Will are allowed to generate the same kind of heat as Olivia Pope and President Fitzgerald Grant on Scandal and I'm not talking about more sex scenes, folks. I'm talking about chemistry and allowing it to be on full display even in a meeting at police headquarters.

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The writers on Deception have their work cut out for them because this series will have to do more than what has been done before to compete and survive as a murder mystery, especially with competition coming from CBS' Elementary. All of the pieces are there for a great mystery: the murder, the victim, the detective, the clues, the cover-ups and the twists and turns. Hopefully the show will get out of its own way and head in a direction that distinguishes it from the rest of the pack.

Nsenga K. Burton, Ph.D., is editor-at-large for The Root. She is also editor-in-chief of the Burton Wire, a blog dedicated to world news related to the African Diaspora and global culture. Follow her on Twitter.

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Nsenga K. Burton, Ph.D., a media scholar, is digital editor in chief at Grady Newsource and a faculty member of the Cox Institute of Journalism, Innovation, Management & Leadership at the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Georgia. She is founder and editor in chief of the award-winning news blog the Burton Wire. Follow her on Twitter here or here.

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