Fox has built itself a nice business out of genius doctor shows. House and Fringe have both found quick and devoted audiences. The first season of Lie to Me one ups both of these series and takes the whole genre to a new level.
Tim Roth is at his loopy best as Dr. Cal Lightman, a man learned in the ways of reading faces. Using what he calls “micro-expressions”, he can tell if someone is lying using just a blunt question and his unwavering gaze. A frown, an eye twitch, or a shoulder shrug – it means nothing to you but it’s everything to Dr. Lightman. He’s built a company, The Lightman Group, on this practice and clients hire him to pull this human lie detecting in any number of circumstances, such as:
In episode 2, “Moral Waiver”, the Army hires Lightman to figure out if a staff sergeant has been raping his soldiers or if the soldier accusing him is lying. After a bit of interrogating, Lightman propositions the man, who kindly refuses his advances and walks off. Lightman is doing what he always does – forcing a reaction he can read. Asking a blunt enough question opens people right up to him. This sort of thing is put to plenty of good use, whether Lightman is purposely disrespecting an ex-gang member or faking a fight with a colleague that ends in a vicious slap. Lightman’s trade is conning people into telling him the truth. He deals almost exclusively in lies and yet he can see through them all.
As Lightman is the perfect lie detector, it is inevitable, then, that he would come up against the perfect liar, as he does in “Blinded”, in which he meets jailed killer Andrew Jenkins (Daniel Sunjata), a man without a single tell. The man used to blind and rape women and now he’s got a copycat on the outside, doing the same thing. As Lightman and Andrew face off in an interrogation room, a woman’s life hangs in the balance.
The woman’s life hanging in the balance, of course, doesn’t have that much juice. It’s a good bit of business to keep the clock ticking, but the real show is with Lightman trying to crack this guy. Does he crack the guy? Of course he does – this is broadcast TV. How could the hero lose? It’s how he cracks him that’s so great – and I won’t give it away here – but it’s a deft bit of plotting and in the end, it all makes perfect sense.
What’s so refreshing about the way these episodes play out is that, in other shows if a character listened to someone’s story and then said “He’s lying.”, it would be followed up with “I just have a gut feeling about this.” This is always the laziest way to create tension before a break. Don’t bother coming up with any actual clues or visual evidence that we as an audience can see. Just have a character say “Something’s… just not right” and you’re covered.
On the show, when Lightman or one of his cronies says someone’s lying, they can immediately follow it up with the evidence – his eyes looked away, his mouth made a certain motion. It’s all concrete. There are no hunches involved here. It’s like they’re reading minds, it’s like they’re going with their gut, but they’re not. These guys are scientists.
And this is how the show one ups House and Fringe – the science of Lie to Me is a little more graspable. With Fringe, everything has to be explained thoroughly because the concepts that show trades in are so out there. With House, the dude is a crazy medical genius who can rattle off any of a million types of diseases or malnourishments to explain why that bruise on your knee is making your heart explode. But he might as well be making it all up as he goes along. Because who knows what’s going on in these meat bags we’re walking around in everyday?
But with Lie to Me, there’s something inherently understandable. We register these tiny signals, we react to them when we talk to people and we send them out ourselves. We may not catch all of it, but we know instinctively that this stuff exists. It just makes sense. And it’s like having a superpower. Who doesn’t want to be able to read people like this?
This particular question leads to a weak point in the series, though it’s an interesting question to have up in the air. As it is alluded to several times during the season – these people’s private lives usually go up in flames because no one can keep a secret from them. Anything they want to know, they can find out. They’re driven to do it. And so Lightman is divorced. His partner, Dr. Gillian Foster (Kelli Williams) has a marriage on the skids. Everyone is dealing with it one way or another. And it’s at this point in the story that the series seems to want to stretch beyond its broadcast boundaries and take things a little further. Were this Showtime or HBO, it could. And it would be interesting to see where these mind games lead on a channel where darker plots and sadder endings get some room to breathe.
But as a doctor procedural, this series is pretty hard to beat. Here’s hoping the makers don’t shy away from the tougher implications of these mortals who can read men’s minds. This should be an interesting trip.
“Pilot”, “Moral Waiver”, “A Perfect Score”, “Love Always”, “Unchained”, “Do No Harm”, “The Best Policy”, “Depraved Heart”, “Life is Priceless”, “Better Half”, “Undercover”, “Blinded”, “Sacrifice”
The video is presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic and carries the Fox sheen that House and Fringe both carry. Very nicely photographed, especially the extreme close ups used to show off the facial twitches Lightman and his crew read. The audio is Dolby Digital 5.1 and the presentation is crisp, though this is not a show that relies much on sound. Subtitles are presented in English, Spanish, French, and Portuguese.
The Truth About Lies – As behind the scenes featurettes go, this is a pretty thorough one. The creators and cast go talk shop as they nearly dissect each episode of the season. Was hoping this would be a short bit on the realities of reading faces, but alas… (26:05)
Deleted Scenes – A collection of 6 deleted scenes, none of which deepen or illuminate anything from their respective episodes. (19:16)
Nobel Son Trailer – Alright, Fox. I enjoyed this TV show about scientists who can read people’s faces. Maybe I’ll enjoy a movie about Alan Rickman’s son being kidnapped by idiots? Then again, maaaaybe not. (2:26)
Lie to Me: Season One puts a strong spin on the genius doctor genre and finds great tension in a group of characters who know all your secrets.
20th Century Fox presents Lie to Me: Season One. Starring: Tim Roth, Kelli Williams, Brendan Hines, Monica Raymund, Hayley McFarland, Mekhi Phifer, Sean Patrick Thomas, Jennifer Beals. Boxset Contents: 13 episodes on 4 DVDs. Running time: 572 min. Rating: NR. Released on DVD: August 25, 2009. Available at Amazon.com
Tags: Fox, jennifer beals