Watching all ten episodes of Fakes will likely leave you with some trust issues, but you can believe me when I say it’s entirely worth it. The Canadian series—which recounts the story of two high school best friends accidentally-on-purpose building a huge fake-ID empire—doesn’t move at the frenetic pace of a lot of Netflix shows, which leaves plenty of room for black humor, oddball characters, cultural ties, familial drama, deep friendships, non-linear storytelling, so much unreliable narration, and, sadly, one very distracting wig.
Here are some solid(ish) facts: Zoe Christensen (Emilija Baranac) and Becca Li (Jennifer Tong) have been best friends for a very long time, and they are about to become queens of a fake ID empire, which is going to put some strain on their friendship. Zoe, who lives with her single mother who works long hours as a nurse, is studious and protective. Becca, who lives with her Mah Mah (Cindy Piper), her father (Ryan Mah), and her younger sister (Emily Leung), is too busy working to rebel against her absent mother’s (Elfina Luk) and distracted father’s stringent expectations to study. She is, however, absolutely devoted to her Mah Mah and her sister. Beyond that, it all gets a little murky because we’re dependent on Becca and Zoe for the story, and their versions are, well, amended after the fact. (Yes, they do break the fourth wall.)
We begin at the end—Whoa! So, like, meta—with Becca and Zoe getting arrested and dragged out of a raging party, and then we race back to the beginning, where the story is told first from one girl’s perspective and then the other’s, with each one omitting, adding, changing, glossing over, or possibly making up key details. Becca’s boyfriend (Wern Lee), for example, figures prominently in Zoe’s retelling, but barely appears at all in Becca’s version. (Oh yeah, there’s some juicy stuff there.) For our first impression of Zoe before shit got wild, we see her in a library, timidly, but giddily using the fake student ID she made by herself to check out college-level books.
In our first introduction to Becca before the after, we see her scolding her Kumon tutor for saying that he’ll talk to her father about her lack of interest in their study sessions. “If I don’t pass, my father will be disappointed, but it couldn’t possibly be my fault because I’m his daughter and, well, he’s a genius,” she says evenly. “So it’s the system’s fault. And you’re part of the system, so if I fail you’re fired and replaced by another one next term. Don’t threaten me.”
It’s interesting to see how both Zoe and Becca try to present themselves as competent, independent, protective in their versions of the story. Both girls come from homes that are, in different ways, fractured and unstable, and they each see themself in the role of defender and savior of their families, which, of course, is not theirs to carry. But carry it they do, and it plays out in interesting ways in how they present their friendship with each other, the development of the criminal enterprise, and its eventual—maybe temporary—downfall.
While both of them avidly blame the other for coming up with the idea to manufacture and sell the IDs for profit, they do agree that it was falling in with Tryst (Richard Harmon), a small-time drug-dealer and coffee shop employee with newly-forged bigger-time underworld connections, that sealed their fate. They promise to make 200 fakes for Tryst, then try to back out of the deal, then realize they’re possibly in over their heads, then go on a wild chase to find printers that will work, then take on some very malicious middle schoolers, before finally producing the goods. After that, they could go back to life as it was before, but the truth is that they both liked the rush, they liked spending more time together, and they liked (for different reasons) making money. So instead, they come up with a business plan (as one does for illegal activity), which they pitch to Tryst with a whole PowerPoint presentation and then offer him a printed, bound proposal, which he kindly points out is hard evidence of their proposed criminal enterprise, “for fuck’s sake.”
Tryst does get his own episode, in case you were wondering (he does not break the fourth wall), which provides us insight into the man behind the poorly bleached blonde hair, the dead-ish eyes, and the seemingly endless well of off-the-cuff remarks. Tryst has his own set of deferred hopes and dreams, which I won’t spoil for you, but I will say that he’s one of my favorite characters and it’s not just because I have a thing for flatly sarcastic people or because in one scene he yells at a passing motorcycle to shut up with so much rage that I wanted to kiss him full on the mouth. No, Tryst has depth, skills, and more of a moral compass than a guy living on the fringes of society would usually be given in a show like this.
Another favorite character? Sally (Matreya Scarrwener), Zoe’s pick as middle-woman for selling the IDs. Becca chooses Sophie (Mya Lowe), who is popular, beautiful, and socially adept, and also clearly has a thing for Zoe and can sell the fake IDs like they’re, well, fake IDs. Zoe, however, chooses Sally, who dances to her own beat. Quite literally. In one scene she’s dancing by herself, her arms waving wildly to the sides, her legs kicking out like she’s the Karate Kid. It’s fantastic. She also breaks into show tunes at very inopportune times and stands far too close to people when she’s speaking. In one scene, when she’s preparing to sell some kids at another school on fake IDs, she says, “This is only gonna work if I’m in corduroy.” Then she runs off, flapping her arms and greeting the kids with a song. One of my favorite moments is when Zoe tells her that this endeavor could help to make her cool, and Sally insists that they both already are cool before backing away slowly and snapping her fingers. She’s absolutely terrible at selling anything, she loses something really vital, and she refuses to stick to any script that Zoe and Becca give her, but, even so, don’t count Sally out just yet.
The trick of the unreliable narrator certainly isn’t anything new, but that doesn’t make it any less fun to watch it here and to try to figure out what’s real and what’s, well, fake in the overlapping versions of the story. Each version also leaves room to build in more backstory about Zoe, Becca, and other characters (like Sally, for a random example). There is a gut-wrenching scene between Becca and her mother, which likely impacts her future behavior in ways that Zoe isn’t entirely aware of. And there is a painful interaction with Zoe and her brother that also colors her actions. The ability to build in backstory, and also give a nutshell version of the history of Chinese immigration to Canada, in a series with a total of 200 minutes without it feeling rushed or forced or contrived is pretty impressive stuff. As fractured and frazzled as their relationship appears to be by the end, it’s still an all around joy to watch Zoe and Becca’s friendship, which is one built on shared experiences, understanding, and mutual respect. You know, until they establish a criminal empire together. SUCH a strain, those criminal empires. It’s refreshing to see a friendship between two young women that isn’t about competition but is instead largely driven by acceptance. That said, Fakes also skewed much darker than I expected, which I mean as a compliment. For all its silliness, humor, and bright costumes, there’s a dark current running through the series that gives it the weight and grounding it needs to balance the multiple and fallible narrators.
But the most unreliable thing in the entire series? Zoe’s wig. And look, I know budgets are not always grand and that nothing is ever completely perfect, but I do get a real bee in my bonnet about wigs that are an outright mess. It’s just such a huge distraction. How are you supposed to suspend disbelief and become absorbed in an imaginary world when someone’s hairline keeps roving around their forehead? Please, I will help crowdfund for a better wig and some glue for the second season.
Anyway, Zoe’s Spirit of Halloween wig aside, what Fakes lacks at this point is a guaranteed second season, because if they’re just going to leave us hanging out on that precipice with so many questions unanswered… Well, I promise you that there will be no ambiguity in my rant about that.