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"Pilot," "Moral Waiver," "A Perfect Score," "Love Always," "Unchained," "Do No Harm," "The Best Policy," "Depraved Heart," "Life is Priceless," "The Better Half," "Undercover," "Blinded," "Sacrifice"
by Jefferson Robbins When did we collectively decide we want to be rescued by assholes? There's a definite arc to the modern police-procedural hero, be it the off-putting but tolerable Gil Grissom of the original "CSI", deep-sea humanoid Horatio Caine of "CSI: Miami", or the despicable Dr. Gregory House. (Yes, "House M.D." is a procedural--its perps just happen to be microbes, household cleansers, and anything else that qualifies as not-lupus.) These prodigies trend towards purer and purer strains of antisocial dickishness, and their techniques of inquiry grow ever more demeaning and emotionally brutal. They use their powers of detection to heal society but in the process get to sneer at its mores.
"Lie to Me" posits a supercop who can't be fooled. A mass of tics himself, Cal Lightman (Tim Roth) is the world's greatest "deception expert," a reader of the involuntary cues that betray a subject's state of mind. His Washington, D.C. consultancy group boasts a fairly standard array of procedural-show types: psychologist Gillian Foster (Kelli Williams), the mothering figure who can explain the slouchy, uncensored Lightman to lesser mortals; junior consultant Eli Loker (Brendan Hines), the smarmy twentysomething; and hot ethnic recruit Ria Torres (Monica Raymund), who can do instinctively what Lightman's trained all his life to do. You won't remember any of the supporting characters' names until you're five episodes in, though each is adept at spotting "deception leakage"--the smothered smile, the brow-twitch of falsehood--and then pointing out to the crook exactly what he's done to give the game away. The facial clues are the same amongst all humans, Lightman argues. Pity the prevaricator who, in the show's archive-photo shorthand, finds his own face freeze-framed against a shot of Nixon, Clinton, or Eliot Spitzer.
Gimmick in place, "Lie to Me" still picks its tools from the same kit as its millennial cop-show brethren. To wit:
1. The forensic close-up: The sucking chest wounds and cellular rot of "CSI" and "House M.D." are here replaced with torquing mouths and shuddery eyelids. I'm not sure which is grosser.
2. Headline immediacy: I kind of admire the research that goes into procedural shows post-"Law & Order". "Lie to Me" compiles military rape statistics, plumbs smart-drug abuse among academically elite teens, and investigates a Madoffian brokerage scam. But at times, it's like Peter Gallagher's soliloquy in The Player about ripping screen stories out of the newspaper and bypassing the writer. Didn't I just read this episode?
3. The Orwell society: Lightman's so good he can ply his trade using video footage or even still photos (with Blade Runner image-enhancement software, natch). Lucky for him we've grown so bovine we don't mind being videotaped while making a mortgage payment at the bank, buying a turkey club at the Gas 'N Go, or running a red light. Hell, give us an iPhone and we'll record ourselves in the act of bludgeoning a transient. It appears the only positive result of this surrender of privacy is a ready plot device for cop dramas.
Roth's shifty charisma sells the show's conceit, as well as the character. Grimacing and furrowed, he seems to have earned his crustiness--he lives in a world of people with glass heads, who share their innards with him whether he wills it or not. Over the first season's course, his relationships with his underlings are hammered into new and dramatically justified shapes. Each episode boasts a sequence of reversals that can be foreseen yet still veer unpredictably, and it's fun to watch Lightman tear down his subjects and excavate so many smaller, personal lies on his way to the big bombshell. He's got a fifteen-year-old daughter (Hayley McFarland) who's supposed to humanize him, but mostly she just looks really convincing as the offspring of Tim Roth and Jennifer Beals, playing Lightman's ex-wife. His hypersensitivity to human nuance is blamed for ruining his marriage. He has a Dark Past that, although it doesn't exert much gravity on the overall plot, figures elegantly in episode 1.8, "Depraved Heart," in which a direct line is drawn between Lightman's parental trauma and his tendency to surround himself with trustworthy women.
But while Lightman may not be bulletproof, the show demands he remain infallible. Somebody died because Lightman didn't correctly gauge a suspect's response! Wait, they're not really dead, and he was correct all along! Fatalities happen not because Lightman fails to uncover a lie, but because the lie was told in the first place; and if there's collateral damage, well, sucks to be you, Señor Pants-on-Fire. Episode 1.12, "Blinded," throws the investigator up against his Moriarty, a particularly barbaric serial rapist who's immune to Lightman's techniques. If the maze of untruths twists and meanders, it's Lightman's maze from the start, and we're never allowed to see the final impact on the monster's chief victim (Clea DuVall), the one worst affected by the biggest lie of the episode. With this instalment, plus 1.11 "Undercover" and the season finale, "Sacrifice," "Lie to Me" betrays a late-season weakness for the ticking-bomb scenario, with mass civilian casualties at stake. The involvement of Mekhi Phifer as an on-call FBI agent augurs more "24" scenarios for the second cycle. It's a waste, because petty, personal lies can wound and kill as surely as the big, institutional falsehoods. I'd rather watch Tim Roth, an actor designed by God for the confrontational two-shot, excavate the former.
The Fox program's first season looks shockingly great on DVD, its 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation as natural and well-lit as the modernist spaces in Lightman's office. (You'd expect a darker lighting and colour scheme for a series about someone unearthing deception, but maybe the layout of his headquarters symbolizes his quest to chase away shadows. That said, the character does retreat to a windowless, book-cluttered den for moments of dour reflection.) Likewise the sound, in DD 5.1, lends balance to multi-character convos and sends Ryan Star's theme song "Brand New Day" ringing across channels like the Coldplay-lite that it is.
On inspecting the credits and the extras, I can see why the "24" formula started creeping in: Imagine Entertainment shepherds both properties. I envision the astonishing hair of Brian Grazer comparing the story bible for "Lie to Me" with that of the Jack Bauer Power Hour and saying, "Make that more like this." The hair in question levitates into view for the featurette "The Truth About Lies" (26 mins.), wherein creator Samuel Baum and practically every production crewmember pitches in, tracing the show's birth to real-life micro-expression expert Paul Ekman, a police consultant who's studied faces the world over. Ekman declares himself a fan of the finished product, as an accurate thumbnail sketch of his work. Sometime director Adam Davidson admits it's a bit odd to be "directing actors' nostrils" to capture the facial errata that Lightman will later hone in on. Roth cops to the most disappointing reason possible for accepting the role of Lightman (after passing on it once): he wanted to have more time with his family. Seventeen deleted scenes add nothing or next to nothing, in this show where the character arcs and plots are so tightly graphed. The exception is a wordless bit with DuVall's character, an excised denouement to "Blinded" that still gives her too little chance to grapple with the horror that's corroded her life. "Lie to Me: Season One" is also available on Blu-ray. Originally published: November 24, 2009.