Kevin Williamson’s career has been fascinating, having been a major film and TV influencer in the ‘90s with his script for “Scream” and his creation of “Dawson’s Creek.” And while he hasn’t been as prominent a voice in the industry in the ‘00s and ‘10s, there is a rabid fan base behind “The Vampire Diaries” who would call that his most important work. And so when it was announced that he had a new ensemble “psychological thriller” debuting this week on CBS All Access, there was reason for optimism—an optimism that dies relatively quickly as “Tell Me a Story” unfolds its dull narrative. Calling this a “thriller” borders on false advertising, at least through the first two episodes sent to press. It’s a stunningly boring character drama, intertwining characters in New York City, ostensibly with a fairy tale motif doing some of the storytelling.
There are talented TV veterans in “Tell Me a Story,” likely lured by Williamson’s pedigree, but even they fail to give what could reasonably be called good performances. The pacing, the dialogue, the (complete lack of) visual language, the world building—it’s impossible to point to a single element that works.
In one narrative, James Wolk plays Jordan, a man close to marrying his girlfriend when fate intervenes tragically. In another, “Vampire Diaries” vet Paul Wesley is a bartender named Eddie who also happens to moonlight as a criminal. In the premiere, Eddie and two others don pig masks to rob a jewelry store. Get it? “Three Little Pigs”? The season will apparently also tie into “Jack and the Beanstalk” and “Little Red Riding Hood,” but to say the connections are tenuous would be overstating it. Kim Cattrall’s character offers her granddaughter Kayla (another vamp vet, Danielle Campbell, from “TVD” spinoff “The Originals”) a red raincoat and the young lady has a wolf tattoo, but the real wolf may be Nick (Billy Magnussen), the older man who ends up going home with Kayla from the club one night. Finally, there’s the saga of Gabe (Davi Santos) and his sister (Dania Ramirez), forced to cover up a crime committed in the season premiere. I guess one of them is Jack. Or maybe the beanstalk.
Crimes, tragedies, sex, and cover-ups—“Tell Me a Story” takes advantage of the lack of broadcast restrictions on CBS All Access to make a show that’s clearly meant for adults but sounds like it was written by teenagers. When Kayla comes into Nick’s apartment, he says, “It’s a work in progress.” Her response: “So am I.” My eyes rolled so far into my head I got a migraine, and it’s far from the only exchange like that in “Tell Me a Story.” You might be tempted to say that it’s intentionally overly dramatic a la some of Ryan Murphy’s creations, but that’s just not the case. It doesn’t have that much ambition or personality. At one point, I simply wrote in my notes, “I just don’t care.” There’s absolutely nothing to hold on to here.
CBS All Access feels like it’s just on the verge of becoming something essential like Hulu or Netflix. “The Good Fight” got critics on board and “Star Trek Discovery” has loyal fans. Most excitingly, Jordan Peele is working on a reboot of “The Twilight Zone” for the streaming service, and I can’t wait to see what he does there. But I hope to have completely forgotten this painful “Story” by then.