Rellik v Liar: which primetime Williams brothers drama should you watch?

The two shows are going out on the same night, in the same slot, on BBC One and ITV.

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Harry and Jack Williams are brothers who write TV shows together. They started out doing sitcoms, but that proved disastrous – anyone for Roman’s Empire? – and for ages they couldn’t get arrested. Then, in 2014, everything changed with their thriller, The Missing. Suddenly, they were hot.

Their new series, Rellik and Liar, are going out on the same night, in the same slot, on BBC One and ITV respectively. And so, like a couple of colossi – albeit colossi in spectacles, jeans and woollen sweaters – they bestride the primetime schedules.

Their big thing is messing with chronology, the better to enable us to see the same story from different points of view: the truth, they like to remind us, is ever elusive, and chasing it can send a person half-way round the bend. I admire this: their relish for a challenge. But it’s not without its risks. Rellik (11 September, 9pm), for instance, is a crime story told backwards, and while it might be possible to pull off such a trick in a novel, on television, where motivation is so much less important than the chase, it would seem to me to be almost impossible.

Of course, I’ll have to reserve judgement on this for now, but what I can say is that the show’s structure is absolutely exasperating; ultimately, the audience may not stick around long enough to find out if they’re capable of keeping people guessing right to the end. Without any forward trajectory, it’s impossible to get involved: every time the action spins backwards – “5 hours 10 minutes earlier” it’ll say on screen, or “3 hours, 33 minutes earlier” – your interest drops another notch.

The drama involves – a touch queasily, given what we read in the newspapers – a killer who likes to douse his victims in acid. Most of them are dead, but one, DCI Gabriel Markham (Richard Dormer), has lived to tell the tale, albeit with a face that is horrifically scarred. Somewhat improbably, he’s leading the investigation in spite of this. Dormer is predictably brilliant – fiendishly sexy beneath the fire that burns on his cheeks and neck – but much more than this I cannot tell you, given that I have not the foggiest idea what is going on.

Liar (11 September, 9pm) is an altogether different proposition. With its mainstream (or perhaps I mean middle-of-the-road) stars, Joanne Froggatt and Ioan Gruffudd, and its middle-class setting (she plays a teacher and he a surgeon, both of whom live in some style on the Kent coast), it’s aimed at the same audience as the BBC’s Doctor Foster: picture working women up and down the land eating their supper on trays in front of it.

In the first episode, Laura (Froggatt), newly single having recently dumped her (how convenient!) copper boyfriend, Tom (Warren Brown), agreed to go on a date with Andrew, the dishy widower father of one of her students and the colleague of her sister, Katy, a nurse – and it went swimmingly until the moment when, at the end of the evening, she invited him in to charge his dead mobile. After this, something happened. She says he raped her. He says they had a great time, and that the sex was consensual. There being no signs of any violence on her body, now that she has reported the rape to the police, it is her word against his.

Again, it’s hard to know where our colossi are going with this. With six episodes to run, surely it can’t be the case that – take your pick – either she will turn out to be a liar, or he a rapist. How would they spin that out? Sure enough, a certain uncomfortable fuzziness has already entered the proceedings. Laura has had mental health issues in the past; Andrew’s wife committed suicide; Katy is having an affair with Tom.

Revenge, too, is in the air, Laura having now denounced Andrew as a rapist on social media – an act so unlikely given she is seemingly both so scared and so desperate for the case to proceed that it seems like an obvious (too obvious?) red flag in terms of her truthfulness. It’s all moderately gripping, I suppose. The performances are workmanlike, and the mood suitably tricksy. But I still feel uneasy with rape being used like this, as a mere cog in the suspenseful wheels of what will doubtless turn out to be a highly elaborate plot.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article appears in the 14 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The German problem