When struggling nurse Cath Hardacre (Jodie Whittaker) takes on the identity of her doctor best friend and starts a new job in the overworked emergency department of a major hospital as Dr Ally Sutton, she’s joining a long and proud tradition of television drama: People leading double lives has long been a source of high-stakes storytelling. And it’s no mystery why. How would you feel if the doctor operating on you wasn’t really a doctor at all?
While the drama in Cath’s story comes from wondering how long she can get away with pretending to have qualifications she doesn’t actually have (even if she has more than enough practical experience), the best-known example of a recent series built around a character pretending to be something they’re not didn’t worry about that side of things much at all.
In Mad Men Dick Whitman (Jon Hamm) took on the identity of dead Korean War vet Don Draper and built himself a whole new life as the slickest ad executive on 1960s Madison Avenue. Living a lie took a constant toll; no matter how on top of things he seemed, he could never quite escape his past. But professionally? Not a problem: eventually most of his workmates knew, and they didn’t care. It definitely wasn’t a problem for his clients. In fact, his troubled personal life often led directly to some of his best ad campaigns.
Much of the thrill of a series like Trust Me comes from seeing someone use their skills in a way they’d never be allowed to in their regular job. American action series Banshee took full advantage (perhaps a little too much advantage) of this idea: Fresh out of jail and on his way to take back the woman he loves – and his share of the loot from their final heist – a master thief (Antony Starr) stops off at a dive bar on the edge of her home town of Banshee.
No sooner has he sat down than the town’s new sheriff Lucas Hood turns up, gets involved in a bar fight, and is promptly killed. So what better way for the thief to get up to no good than by pretending to be the new sheriff? (Conveniently, nobody in Banshee had ever met him.) Banshee wasn’t so much about answering questions about identity as it was about answering the question, “What if the town sheriff was really good at kicking ass and didn’t really care about the law?”, which to be fair, made it awesome viewing for fight fans.
A common theme in these series is that the strain of living a lie will tear an imposter’s family apart. In German series Tempel, nurse Mark Tempel (Ken Duken) secretly returns to the life he left behind as a boxer and violent street thug after his family is threatened by shady real estate dealers looking to throw them out on the street. Unable to tell them what he’s up to, they increasingly dismiss him as a wimp unwilling to fight for them, unaware that his real struggle is to save their home while avoiding the temptation of his old, violent ways.
The flip side of this is another German series You Are Wanted, which tells the story of a man forced to leave his old identity behind when it’s stolen and used to make it look like he was behind a massive cyber-terrorism attack. Now he’s got to figure out how to be a whole new man while trying to clear the name of who he used to be.
Not all stories of living a lie are quite as grim as Ser Jonah on Game of Thrones, who pretended to be the confidant of Daenerys Targaryen, then fell in love with her (then got cast out, fought in a gladiator pit and caught an unusually deadly skin disease). Take 1982 mystery dramedy Remington Steele: when private investigator Laura Holt (Stephanie Zimbalist) discovers that nobody will hire a woman PI, she invents the character of “Remington Steele” to be her unseen boss.
Problem is, when a client demands a job be handled by Steele himself, a shady yet charming conman (Pierce Brosnan) steps into the role – and never leaves. What followed basically created the idea of “will they or won’t they” romantic subplots in television; not bad for a conman who didn’t even know his own real name.
Then there’s the greatest double life of them all: Hannah Montana. Regular high school student by day, pop star by night – Miley Stewart AKA Hannah Montana was constantly juggling the demands of friendship, hanging out and secretly being a musical superstar-slash-teen idol under another name once the sun went down.
Controversially, star Miley Cyrus increasingly led a real-life double life, as her off-camera image became increasingly “grown-up” (read: sexy) while on TV, she remained the star of a wholesome family show that was one of Disney’s biggest money-spinners. As just about all these series make clear, eventually you have to choose one life over the other: Hannah now lives on only in repeats.
Trust Me airs on Thursday nights at 9.25pm on SBS. Episodes will stream at SBS On Demand after broadcast. Catch up from episode 1:
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