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.