Lie to Me
is a television series
, produced by Fox
and aired in the U.S. on that station. It stars Tim Roth
as Dr. Cal Lightman, the main character. So far, only the pilot
has aired, so this will be a bit short on actual content review and turn more on a concept review.
The one-sentence description for the show is probably something along the lines of "Tim Roth plays a human lie detector and his consulting firm investigates crimes and situations at the behest of both law enforcement and private parties."
That's pretty dry.
So what do we mean a human lie detector? Pretty much just what it says. Essentially, Dr. Cal Lightman is an expert on observing and interpreting human behavior in order to determine not only the truthfulness of what the subject is saying, but to extract all manner of information through interrogative tricks and simple deduction. Other members of his firm have this skill to varying levels of both talent and training. The pilot episode involves two primary situations, unrelated to each other. In the first (and more important) storyline, a young man in high school is caught fleeing the scene of his teacher's murder at her home. The DA, who for some unknown reason is fairly contemptuous of Lightman and company, is forced to allow Lightman to investigate by the Mayor (of Washington, D.C., where the show is set).
The other plot involves a politician and a prostitute. There's a familiar tale, although the show tries hard to make it twist on us.
Not much to say, yet. Roth is doing his normal 'quietly intense' routine. All we know about Cal Lightman after watching this episode is that he is a single father of a daughter, thinks everybody in the world lies pretty much all the time based on his experience, and is very good at winkling out those falsehoods. He's somewhat arrogant, and has strong opinions on the 'correctness' of people's behavior. Apparently, he feels compelled sometimes to get involved - the typical 'with great power comes great responsibility' argument. This, of course, has and likely will get him in trouble for our entertainment. Unlike most of his colleagues, Lightman is not only a good lie detector but apparently a very, very accomplished liar.
His assistants include a second-in-command who is, as far as we can tell, an acolyte in the Lightman Image; a classic nerd type whose hook is that he tries to always tell the truth, especially if it will cause shock (probably a good policy in that office), and a new recruit we watch Lightman take on in the first episode.
Everyone else seems a little bland. Roth fits his persona best because they pretty much seem to have hired him for it - 'here, be poorly shaven, have an attitude, and freak people out. You know, what you always do.' The others are feeling their way into roles. Brendan Hines, the gent playing Eli who always tells the truth, is (so far) a one-trick pony. He's competent at it, but hasn't had enough screen time to make an impression other than that trick. I think it'll depend on how restrained the writers are about using the trick; will they give him any other role? WIll they let him act on his own for decent periods without saddling him with a cheap writer's shot? Time will tell.
The show takes place in a string of familiar locations (holding cells, interrogation rooms, police stations, the typical settings of a procedural drama) and in the Lightman Company's offices. The latter are the only chance the show really has to take a stand, design-wise, and they do. The offices of Lightman are, in a word, white. Not in the cultural or racial sense; in the literal sense. Rooms are white boxes, sparsely inhabited by minimalist furniture, Macintosh computers, and giant wall screens or projectors that are used for the dramatic examination of images by the protagonists. Faces can and are thrown on these screens all the time - both shots from the teleplay in progress, and (here's their fun trick) shots of famous real-world people in relatively well-known images or poses, used to demonstrate the Lightman method of interpretation. When showing a suspect exhibiting contempt, Lightman has a comparable image thrown up on the wall of Dick Cheney with his trademark sneer. While that one is a bit too blunt, there are several other examples. Bill Clinton and his famous Lewinsky Incident are namechecked both via a photo of Bill's face and in dialogue. Even Kato Kaelin from the O.J. Simpson debacle gets some snark time in.
The offices aren't just white, though. They seem designed to be disorienting. Lightbars on the ceiling don't follow hallways, but zigzag somewhat crazily down them. The hallways themselves aren't regular polygons, but seem to have tilting walls or angled sides or both. The 'snack room' or kitchen (can't tell which) looks out onto a diorama outside the large windows - several scrubby trees planted in a white, white box open only at the top. Essentially, it's a set designed to remind you that although things may look 'good' (white) they're seriously twisted, and not only for the 'bad guys.'
Roth and his henchfolks doing the lie detector trick is fun. Roth is more engaging about it than the others, mostly because (House-like) he can be a real jerk about it. The question is, how believable is it? There are really two questions here; one, is it 'real' and two is it presented to us in a manner which allows or assists us to suspend disbelief.
I won't really go into the 'how real is it' question. There is certainly a branch of science that studies behavior, and there are all manner of techniques which can be learned both explicitly through study and implicitly through working with people which will allow the user a better chance of detecting falsehood. Dr. Cal Lightman is based on a real person, or at least the work of a real person - clinical psychologist Dr. Paul Ekman. Dr. Ekman, who has authored several books on the subject of behavioral lie detection, claims that the show's episodes (on which he works as a consultant) are around 90% accurate. If you're interested, he will be blogging after each episode, discussing the science referenced within, on the show's website (Google is your friend there).
Apart from claims from authority who have a biased interest in your believing this, how does it stand up in terms of suspension of disbelief? I have to say it's actually well done. It suffers just a bit as a drama as a result, although this may be because it's early days in the show. The reason for both of these is because there is a great deal of explanation using imagery both before the main plots unfold and as the techniques are used. The show's main gimmick of using large-size, high resolution images and having the characters perform their interpretations using them as props is enhanced by the protagonist's cheerful arrogance in having to explain to everyone (sometimes the subjects, sometimes his colleagues, sometimes just someone who annoyed him) not only how he knows someone is lying, but usually how some other embarrassing fact has come to light through observing them. As a result, I never got the sense that 'this is magic and I should just buy it.' The level of comfort was increased noticeably through the use of the celebrity images - we, from our own experiences outside the show, know what the circumstances those images were taken in. As a result, we 'feel' the correctness of Lightman's interpretation of their mood or other behavior from these images - and the images are always strikingly similar to those used in the show. It's also a not-very-veiled commentary by the show's makers on the various celebrities and the situations they were photographed in - photos of Presidents thrown up next to those of liars in the show, their faces pointed out for comparison, are common.
Of course, actors could be being coached to just imitate these 'known' traits for our entertainment.
But, really, I don't care. I enjoyed the show. I think the actual plots were a bit tired; after all, there's only so much that's interesting that you can do with a police procedural in an hour. To be sure, it's probably all been done to death on American TV. However, the show succeeded at one critical thing - I am curious about Dr. Cal Lightman, and various cryptic references to trouble in his past and the potential for amusing situations in his future both make me want to tune back in. It feels an awful lot like the reason I watch House - I don't really give a hoot about the medical puzzle du jour on that show, but House himself - and his relationships with everyone else - are the reasons to keep watching. I think Hugh Laurie has an easier task than Tim Roth, because Laurie's character is an active misanthrope who gets to behave fearfully inappropriately; and I think Laurie is a better (or at least more flexible) actor than Roth. However, I don't count Roth out yet - he's got some tricks, and this is only his first outing.
If you like character-driven drama and are willing to put up with only scraps of character information per episode - in fact, if you find that fun - then this might be for you. If you like House, MD then you might want to give this a try. The only problem so far is that the other characters in the show aren't nearly as interesting as Roth's character, and are really there as foils; there are no James Wilsons or Lisa Cuddys to really serve as his backstops. But they've got time to see who gets that role.
First Broadcast: Pilot episode shown January 21, 2009 on Fox Network.
Timeslot: So far, Wednesdays at 9:00pm Eastern. Repeated Friday at 9:00pm.