Lie to Me

July 25, 2012

Lie to Me has a gimmick that’s irresistible.  Fox’s vague marketing for the show might’ve convinced you that it was either just another procedural or, worse, one of those supernatural crime-solver things, like Medium or Raines or Life on Mars.  It’s neither of those, although it does share territory with some other shows on the crowded TV-mystery map, especially Psych and The Mentalist.  The protagonists of those series are both con men who use their con-men acumen to ferret out bad guys, through a vague takes-one-to-know-one logic.  Lie to Me refines and improves that premise by laying a scientific foundation under it.  Tim Roth plays the unsubtly-named Cal Lightman, a psychologist whose specializes in exposing deception.  Lightman – who is based on a real person, Paul Ekman – has spent years studying vocal inflections and facial “microexpressions,” correlating their myriad variations and combinations to specific, concealed emotions.

On paper that might sound abstruse.  In practice it means that Lie to Me has a protagonist who can read plausibly minds.  And because this mind-reading takes place not in a fantastic context but within a modern, realistic arena – Lightman’s tony Washington, D.C. firm consults for law enforcement, big business, and government agencies – it puts an authentically new spin on a worn-out genre (or, because the Lightman Group’s activities and clientele are highly varied, several of them).  Roth is a mugging chimp who’s often hard to take, but he’s perfect as this showy truth-prober, who has to get people riled up so that he can “read” their reactions.  Roth plays up his short-man’s swagger and his Cockney accent, slouches ostentatiously to show his contempt or boredom toward dissemblers, points his finger and gets into his targets’ faces during interrogations.  Lightman is a brilliant, obstreperous genius with no time for social niceties and an entourage who follows him around stammering apologies and explanations; in this regard, Lie to Me resembles yet another show, House M.D.  Both shows are, or were, on Fox, and it’s safe to assume that Lie to Me was consciously shaped in the image of the hit medical drama.  Except that, because sick people generally merit deference and courtesy, Dr. House’s assholery can become unsympathetic.  But since Lightman interacts mainly with liars, his lack of a filter is part of the show’s puckish charm.

Lie to Me’s brilliant conceit is that, even in situations where he might more plausibly whisper his findings in someone’s ear, Lightman and his underlings – especially protegee Ria Torres (Monica Raymund), a former TSA screener with a natural shining for the trick that Lightman had to learn – pick off his subjects’ lies line by line, right to their faces.  “See that?  That’s a lie, roight there,” Lightman drawls.  The poor, outmatched chump tries again.  “Nope, another lie!” Lightman informs him.  The guy stammers something else.  “Now you’re telling the truth, but you’re flashing shame.”  And so on, until the befuddled liar crumples like a wet paper bag.

The fun Roth is obviously having is contagious, because Lie to Me offers a kind of weekly wish fulfillment scenario, not unlike Veronica Mars (teenagers who talked like hyper-smart adults) or The West Wing (a Washington filled with noble-minded intellectuals instead of careerist dolts).  Who wouldn’t want to be able to navigate every conversation while knowing exactly what the other person was thinking?  Lie to Me scores every time it comes up with a set piece that plays on this desire.  In “Teacher and Pupils,” for instance, Lightman sits in on a boardroom negotiation and saves his client a bundle by tapping his pen when he perceives that the opposing party has made his lowest offer.  Ekman’s work is apparently pseudoscience, but with his book to draw on, Lie to Me couches the idea in enough jargon and specificity to make it sound plausible.  “Fear, then.  See how your face flinched?  Directly linked to the muscles in your sphincter.”  “Head down, eyes down, blocking the eyes with the hand – shame.”  “That kind of emphatic denial, with stress on every word, is a sign of condescending deception, Doctor.”  I have no idea whether any of that comes from Ekman’s research, or if the writers are just making it up, but either way it forms a set of codes that invites belief.  Don’t we all fancy ourselves as more discerning judges of character than most?  And wish that every falsehood could be dissected so reliably?

Initially, Lie to Me, which was created by Samuel Baum, seemed to have a dark heart.  It introduced Cal Lightman as tormented – by murky Gulf War experiences, by a failed marriage, by an unconsummatable crush on his married business partner Jillian Foster (Kelli Williams), by guilt over what was eventually revealed as a horrible family tragedy.  The early episodes varied in tone, but some were bracingly grim, especially “Blinded,” which pits Lightman against a serial killer (a mesmerizing Daniel Sunjata) whose sociopathic lack of emotion makes him atypically difficult to read.  But, just as I was about to declare Lie to Me my favorite guilty pleasure of late, something unfortunate happened: Fox dumped some of the original producers (with whom Roth had clashed) and brought in Shawn Ryan to oversee the tail end of the first season and all of the second.

Ironically, it was only this move that put Lie to Me on my radar at all.  Ryan, of course, is the creator of the coruscating The Shield and the co-creator, with David Mamet, of the ambitious but turgid military drama The Unit.  Someone of Ryan’s caliber should be creating cable dramas, not dropping in as a showrunner-for-hire on some network star vehicle.  Almost as much as Veronica Mars creator Rob Thomas’s ill-fated stint as a replacement showrunner for the ABC dud Big Shots, Ryan’s arrival on Lie to Me struck me as a dramatic symbol of a moment of contraction in the possibilities for contemporary quality television.

I suspect now that some of the problems with The Unit, which I had been willing to lay at the feet of CBS or the now burned-out and neo-conned Mamet, may have been the fault of Ryan, or of the writers and producers (Sharon Lee Watson, Daniel Voll, Vahan Moosekian, et. al.) he brought with him from The Unit to Lie to Me.  Several second season Lie to Me episodes could almost be unproduced scripts for The Unit, lightly reworked: “Secret Santa” and “React to Contact” are dull Afghanistan war stories which make only incidental use of Lightman’s techniques, and the somewhat more compelling “Sweet Sixteen,” with Angus MacFadyen as an IRA bomber out of Lightman’s Pentagon-consulting past, is a War on Terror apologia.  Those episodes may not revive the adolescent testosterone worship and and the tiresome hoo-ah jingoism of The Unit, exactly, but they certainly echo The Unit’s frustrating insistence on appending pat outcomes to a scenarios that initially set out in defiance of cliche.

Most television critics praised the Shawn Ryan season as an improvement; I think they were seduced by the name.  Sophomore-year Lie to Me devolved according to the infuriating and all too common pattern of a low-rated show that tosses out everything original about itself and turns familiar and nice in a forlorn effort to court more viewers.  The dark shadings were reduced.  Foster shed a deceitful husband (Tim Guinee); Lightman became less troubled scientific genius, more an action hero.  He gained the company of new characters – an ex-wife (Jennifer Beals) and teenaged daughter (Hayley McFarland), bumped up from recurring status, and an FBI minder (Mekhi Phifer, the ex-ER doctor with the hatchet-fish profile and the one-note delivery) – whose presence maneuvered the stories into banal domestic and procedural territory.  The writing grew borderline embarrassing.  Out came the supersleuth template plots that were hoary back when Joe Mannix trotted through them.  Detective stumbles into case while taking much-needed vacation?  Check (“Control Factor”).  Wanted man takes detective hostage, forces detective to prove his innocence?  Check (“Honey”).  Few shows have enjoyed so crystalline a shark-jumping moment as Lie to Me’s, which took place, for the record, not as awkward-but-hunky Lightman Group tech guy Loker (Brendan Hines) began, in “Tractor Man,” to lead a gaggle of schoolchildren in performing an earworm tune about the relative merits of white lies, but a moment later, when a beaming Dr. Foster peeked in and began mouthing along to the insipid refrain.

Lie to Me ran out of lies last year, after a shortened, Shawn Ryan-less third season.  By the end, Roth had traded intensity for mannerism and self-satisfaction.  Backed by a dreaded producer credit, Roth clowned his way through scenes like an actor who’s decided that he’s the only thing his show has to offer.  In rare cases that kind of contempt might be justified, even aesthetically fruitful – think Mandy Patinkin in the putrid Criminal Minds – but the appeal of Lie to Me lay in the lies, not in the actor.  I know that at least a few readers of this blog only enjoy modern television when it resembles the classics, and for them the retrograde second and third seasons of Lie to Me might prove palatable.  But for anyone who wants new shows to actually be new, this one was a false positive.

Infringement

October 15, 2010

It’s that time of year again.  Time to max out the DVD recorder with the new fall shows, and then try frantically to sample all of them before (a) nobody’s talking about them any more, and therefore everyone will care even less about what I think of them than they might have a short time earlier, and (b) the DVD recorder fills up.

But not this year.  This year I’m celebrating the new fall season by canceling my cable.

I’ll catch up with the season’s survivors on DVD, and as for the ever narrower roster of shows that flop so ignominiously that they don’t net a home video release … well, c’est la guerre.  It’s only mid-October and so far there are three goners – Lone Star, My Generation, and Outlaw – that will probably never resurface outside the private libraries of obsessive collectors.

It’s not that I think new television is bad and old television is good and you should all get off my lawn now.  As I think I’ve said before, I had always planned to fudge the definition of “classic” and write about modern television on this blog, too.  I’ve done that once or twice, but the networks foiled my plans somewhat by taking a bit of a dip creatively just I was planning to start reporting here on the new fall seasons.  Other than Mad Men, I haven’t seen many new series that are as energetic and intelligent as some of the shows that bowed out around the time this blog debuted in 2007: The Wire, The Sopranos, Veronica Mars, Boston Legal, The Shield.  Since the very beginning, the relative density of good television has been cyclical – and I think that right now we’re in the middle of one of the dry spells.

Also, I’m kind of busy these days, with (among other things) some projects that will be noted here in the coming months.  I try not to let real life intrude upon the watching of television, but the threat looms.

*

That’s a partial explanation for why I’ve only just started on Fringe, which is now entering its third season.  The other part is that since I’ve shifted to watching new stuff on DVD rather than “live,” I have fallen behind to the point that I now define “new” as “less than three years old.”

By that arithmetic, Fringe is Fox’s “new” clone of its big hit from the nineties, The X-Files.  It was created, if that’s the word, by J. J. Abrams, Alex Kurtzman, and Roberto Orci.  All three were writer-producers on Alias, a clever genre series that recombined the DNA of a dozen or so espionage, fantasy, and serial melodrama shows into something original.  So it’s a disappointment and a surprise that their latest effort is so uninventive.

Fringe is shocking in how extensively it copies from a single antecedent.  It is also surgical in its skill: it manages to remove the best things about The X-Files and replace them with new things that don’t work at all.  It’s as if Abrams et. al. took some old X-Files scripts and tried to play that Price Is Right game with them, the one where the contestant tries to match a bunch of price tags to a set of corresponding prizes.  Then he or she runs over and pulls a lever, and a big sign next to Bob Barker lights up and indicates how many prices are correct.  If it’s less than all four, the contestant hurries back and switches the tags around before the clock runs out.  In the worst case scenario, a contestant might start out with three right and end up with zero.  Fringe is a zero.

(That game is one of my favorite television-derived metaphors for life, incidentally.)

Fringe centers on two crime-solvers, a female FBI agent and a “consultant” with a checkered past, who investigate mysterious phenomena as part of the Bureau’s “fringe” division.  Some of those phenomena appear to be related; these are collectively referred to as “the Pattern,” and they may trace back to a conspiracy involving the government and a sinister Microsoft-like corporation called (ever so subtly) Massive Dynamic.  Unspoken sexual tension flourishes between the two leads.

I told you: it’s The X-Files with the nametags switched.  In the second season premiere, there’s a throwaway line which establishes that the Fringe division “used to carry the X designation” – in other words, the writers have puckishly placed both shows in the same fictional universe.  That is what we goyim call chutzpah, and unless cameos by Mulder or Scully or even Walter Skinner are in the offing, it was a very bad idea.

I realize now that one of the key ingredients of The X-Files was that Mulder and Scully operated alone in the darkness.  They had no anchor to anything consistent or comforting, at least not that we saw.  Mulder had a backstory, but the supporting characters in the series – like Agent Skinner, Mr. X, and the cigarette-smoking man – were introduced gradually, and always as part of the ever-expanding conspiracy plotline that made up the show’s “mythology.”  And there was a high mortality rate among these characters.  Their purpose was to up the stakes, to insist that we remain invested in material that was, after all, the stuff of supermarket tabloids.

Perhaps in an attempt to mitigate their blandness, Fringe burdens its Mulder and Scully wannabes, Peter Bishop (Joshua Jackson) and Olivia Dunham (Anna Torv), with a large roster of full-time tag-alongs.  There’s an FBI partner, an FBI boss, another FBI partner who may or may not be dead (long story), a lady from Massive Dynamic with a spooky robot hand, a lovably eccentric scientist, his adorable lab assistant, and so on.  A few of these characters prove so disposable that the writers kill them off.  Others exist mainly to offer comic relief of a variety so persistent, repetitive, and unfunny – the mad scientist has a pregnant woman’s weird food cravings, only it’s a different craving in each episode! – that they would be better suited to Scooby Doo.

And instead of dispatching to remote corners of Vancouver (er, I mean, the fifty states), these characters converge in a warmly lit, comfy-looking basement laboratory on the Harvard campus.  The show’s reliance on this inviting stationary set dulls the edge of any eerie atmospherics that the writers and directors try to get going.  (Remember, Mulder and Scully spent very little time at home or in the office).  It also requires that most of Fringe’s unexplained happenings occur within driving distance of Boston, a nagging implausibility for which the show has yet to offer a solid explanation.  At least Scooby Doo worked out of a van.

I’ve seen dumber ideas and more generic sets of characters come to life in the hands of the right creative people.  But Fringe is saddled with a dull cast, and felled by one crucial performance that is so wholly ill-conceived and executed that it becomes sort of fascinating, like a forty-some hour train wreck. 

John Noble (pictured above), an Australian expatriate known mainly for a role in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, portrays Walter Bishop, the father of the male investigator.  Walter is Fringe’s one multi-faceted character, and one of the problems with Fringe is that the writers have appended just about all of the show’s facets to a single character.  Walter is the Frankenberry-munching buffoon I ridiculed above; he’s also a brilliant intellectual, a man with a tragic family history, a repentant villain, and the keeper of a lot of secrets that are doled out now and then as the series unfolds.

It’s an unplayable role, but there are a few actors who could probably pull off the wild swings between intensity and silliness that it requires; Mandy Patinkin and Peter MacNicol (both late of Chicago Hope) come to mind.  Noble doesn’t get hold of either end of the character.  His craggy face and deep baritone form an unusual barrier between himself and the audience.  Noble might be fine doing Gilbert and Sullivan on stage, but he has none of the approachability that most successful television actors develop. 

Noble could have opted to hide behind his natural stoicism (or, dare I say it: nobility) and let us guess what he’s thinking most of the time.  (William Hurt and William Peterson often hold back in this way.)  Instead, Noble veers the other way, toward a bathos that smothers all the father-son scenes.  Maybe because it’s the most external aspect of the character, he fixates on Walter’s uncertain mental health, deploying an exhausting repertoire of twitches, facial tics, and goofy expressions.  (To be fair, some of this, such as Walter’s incessant humming and singing, is scripted.)  Noble is so bold in his bad choices that I’ll bet he has some passionate fans; but all I can see is an actor far out of his depth.

On the other hand (pun intended), the robot-arm lady, Nina Sharp, is played by Blair Brown, and she’s totally captivating – sinister, sensual, mysterious, and matronly, all at once.  Nina is the only major figure on the show whose motives are at all hidden or ambiguous (another smart thing about The X-Files is that it had a ton of these characters), and Fringe mostly wastes her as a purveyor of exposition.  There are shows where casting doesn’t matter as much, but since almost nothing in the narrative or the look of Fringe is novel, I find myself tuning out the details of each week’s x-file (’scuse me, “fringe event”) and getting stuck on how good Brown is and how bad all of the other actors are.

Fringe succeeds in one and only one area.  It offers an acceptable substitute for the extraterrestrial invasion that structured the mythology of The X-Files.  By the middle of the first season, Fringe has shown most of its cards in this regard: it posits the existence of a parallel universe, and the ongoing storyline explores the potentially disastrous consequences of contact between it and our own.  (Is it piling on to point out that the pattern by which Fringe alternates between self-contained “monster” episodes and fan-servicing “mythology” episodes duplicates a strategy worked out by The X-Files?)

The theory of parallel universes actually exists in quantum physics, and so it opens the door to do “hard” science fiction of a type that none of the major American fantasy series have attempted.  Fringe hasn’t availed itself of this possibility nearly enough, but its few imaginative ideas have all come out of it: a mummified madman (Jared Harris) teleporting himself, and the occasional motor vehicle, through space using a set of souped-up surveying equipment; a strange bald guy (Michael Cerveris) with futuristic spyglasses who seems to pop up at important moments throughout centuries of human history; a great second-season time-paradox episode about a grief-stricken scientist (Peter Weller) who turns himself into a cyborg time-machine; and the circumstances and setting of the long-deferred initial appearance of William Bell (Leonard Nimoy), the Massive Dynamic founder who is (sort of) the mastermind behind everything.

But those are fleeting pleasures, and in between them Fringe is just video-methadone for sad addicts who have done without an X-Files fix for close to a decade.

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