The Secrets She Keeps review – psychologically tense and thrilling drama, but easily spoiled

Somewhere, living among us, in subterranean lairs accessible only by secret doorways hidden behind mahogany panels in TV network office buildings which lead into boobytrapped passageways lined with the skulls and bones of those who have come before, exists a rare clan of despicable creatures.

These vitamin-deprived things reject all notions of civility, nobility, decency. They are the people who make the “in the next episode of … ” teasers at the end of TV dramas that totally spoil upcoming twists.

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Immediately after the first episode of Network Ten’s six-part thriller The Secrets She Keeps – a lurid “family’s worst nightmare” narrative hinged on the interconnected stories of two heavily pregnant women – the first of these teasers arrived like a stink bomb hurled at my face. A 30-second spoiler reel rattled off a series of unwanted visions including the very final shot of the very next episode.

I’m not one of those spoiler-obsessed people; in fact I believe the relationship between spoilers and viewer satisfaction is not what people think it is, and that spoilerphobia often inhibits our ability to have meaningful conversations about art. But these tacked-on spoiler reels were a bridge too far.

The fact that I cared more than I usually do about the preservation of plot information is a testament to the series – created by Michael Robotham and adapted from his 2017 novel of the same name – which has a desperate, swelling discomfort at its core.

The directors, Jennifer Leacey and Catherine Millar, pull off no easy feat, pushing viewers into a psychologically tense space where walls feel like they are closing in and the actions of certain characters become maddening. Generally in a good, nail-biting way, rather than “get outta town, this is stretching plausibility” – though at times there is a faint element of that too.

The first episode opens moodily, with an image bathed in midnight blue depicting Meghan (Jessica De Gouw, recently in SBS’s sexting-themed drama The Hunting) and her husband Jack (Michael Dorman) lying in bed. Voiceover narration begins, telling the audience: “It’s time to let you in on a little secret, we didn’t plan to have another child.”

The words are the beginning of a blogpost Meghan – a mummy blogger and social media influencer – is writing. But when it comes to skeletons in the closet, the admission of an unintended child is nothing compared with the various kinds of jiggery-pokery and dangerous liaisons in store.

The narrative pivots between Meghan, who has two young children and a husband working in television, and Agatha (Laura Carmichael, from Downton Abbey), who is single and works at a local mini-supermarket. It is obvious that Agatha envies Meghan, unaware that life inside her beautiful home is more complex than the view from over the fence. Meghan and Jack are experiencing financial and marital troubles – but from Agatha’s perspective, lonely and stocking shelves, it looks pretty sweet.

The pair do have one important thing in common: they are both due to give birth around the same day. If Meghan’s baby was unintended, Agatha’s could not be more welcome; she longs to have a child after losing a previous pregnancy at 32 weeks. This dichotomy challenges, in a reasonably sophisticated way, the fallacy that all women will feel the same way about pregnancy – a theme also at the core of Miranda Nation’s excellent 2018 Australian film Undertow.

At the core of The Secrets She Keeps are two fine performances from De Gouw and Carmichael, who is particularly exceptional. For the drama to work it is crucial that the audience feel both drawn to and pushed away from Agatha; that we empathise with her while being unsure whether she can be trusted. Is she just a bit socially awkward? Or is there something more going on?

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The bedrock of the show is credible, serious drama, though this is undercut from time to time by pulpy genre elements more befitting old-school Ozploitation thrillers – such as 1979’s Snapshot (in which the enemy is a Mr Whippy van) and the 1987 slasher flick Cassandra. A horrific flashback to a terrible crime committed by a priest played by Nicholas Hope comes across particularly heavy-handed, and the behaviour of a “psychological investigator” who works for the police is quite silly. These moments detract from the curly complexity of Sarah Walker and Jonathan Gavin’s screenplay, releasing some of its suffocating air out, like a pressure valve or a prematurely opened oven door.

Still, it’s a thrill to see the pieces come together, in a fingers-shielding-your-face sort of way. There were occasions – particularly in the final two episodes – when particularly stressful moments led my mind to repeat the same two words again and again: Oh no, oh no, oh no ...

Then there were other moments – not, I should add, the fault of the creators – that made me want to throw something at the screen and curse certain people. Or certain creatures. You remember the kind. They live among us, in subterranean lairs, and they answer to no one.

• The Secrets She Keeps is showing on Network Ten