As truth detective Dr. Cal Lightman, Tim Roth spends most of the first season of Lie to Me physically hiding in the shadows.
While the cops and other assorted “good guys” ask the questions, Lightman skulks in dark corners, paces the perimeter or slouches in a chair in the corner of a room. The actual answers given by the man (or woman) in the hot seat mean nothing to him. He finds truth—or lies—in body language and facial tics often ignored by an untrained eye. Lightman is in the background, but you can’t take your eyes off him.
Lie to Me could have been just another television procedural. That it’s not is in large part due to Roth, who injects life and mystery into a part that on paper reads like a watered down version of Dr. Gregory House.
Roth is Lie to Me‘s greatest asset. But the strength of his performance also makes the show’s relatively minor flaws a lot more obvious.
Lightman, who is based on real-life psychologist and body language expert Dr. Paul Ekman, runs a private consulting company for hire to help anyone who might need to know if they’re in the company of a liar. It’s a clever premise that allows the writers to inject Lightman and his geek squad of assistants into just about any situation including criminal investigations, government scandals and natural disasters.
The Mary Sunshine to Lightman’s Oscar the Grouch is his colleague, Dr. Gillian Morris (Kelli Williams.) They’re assisted by junior lie detectors Eli Loker (Brendan Hines) and Ria Torres (Monica Raymund.) In most of the episodes, Lightman works one case with Torres, a former TSA agent with a natural gift for fingering liars, while the perky Morris handles the “B” story with Loker.
Here’s where the problems come in— while Lightman and Torres are immediately compelling as characters, Morris and Loker are not. The Lightman/Torres half of each episode is addictive. The Morris/Loker interludes are good excuses for snack breaks.
I’ve already sung Roth’s praises and Raymund capably holds her own in their scenes together. But not all of the blame—or praise—falls with the actors. The writers saved most of the complex backstory for Lightman and Torres. Lightman’s ex-wife (Jennifer Beals) and teenage daughter (Hayley McFarland) pop up in for visits and Torres gets a boyfriend in addition to the “fish out of water” scenarios that naturally come when someone makes the transition from working the airport security line to working high-level homeland security cases.
Meanwhile, Hines is stuck playing the one-note Loker, whose commitment to total honesty at all times garners about half a laugh every third episode. In the case of Morris, there’s no lack of context—she’s got a troubled marriage and the failed adoption of a baby daughter under her belt. Williams does a fine job in the scenes where Morris specifically addresses these maladies and she’s got a nice chemistry with Roth.
But Williams is positively robotic in any scene in which Morris is actually working. As a veteran of the procedural (she spent six seasons playing a lawyer on The Practice) Williams should know better.
The lack of balance in the cast is most noticeable in the season’s early episodes, when the writers seemed especially committed to drawing parallels between cantankerous Lightman and the more even-keeled Morris. But Lightman becomes almost cuddly when he’s interacting with his daughter. It doesn’t hurt Morris’ likability one bit when she begins to confront the problems in her marriage, so why not let her play bad cop during a case every now and then?
The season’s strongest episodes have plots that require the entire team to work a single case. The characters’ strengths and weaknesses fall into better balance and the audience gains time to appreciate the fine production values at work. In the making of featurette (the only extra, aside from deleted scenes), Lie to Me‘s creators discuss the difficulties of directing actors’ facial tics so the audience can see how Lightman and Co. form their theories about each potential liar.
But you wouldn’t know how hard this must be from watching the episodes. Helpful (and often hilarious) examples of the “tells” for particular emotions are woven into each plot—in the form of photos of real-life public figures (Bill Clinton and O.J. Simpson make multiple appearances, among other notables).
Lie to Me has a few kinks that need to be worked out. But this is one procedural that may actually count as educational—the audience may never need to know what to do inside a courtroom or a hospital, but we all want to know what our friends and family are really thinking.