Lie to Me: Season Two Premiere

[28 September 2009]

By Cynthia Fuchs

PopMatters Film and TV Editor

Perv Central

You’re safe here. You can trust us, I promise.
—Cal Lightman (Tim Roth)


“Cal Lightman sees the truth. It’s written all over your face. It’s also in your voice, your posture, the words you choose.” Listening to his introduction at yet another book signing, Cal (Tim Roth) winces. It’s not that he doesn’t have utter confidence in his ability to “see the truth.” And it’s not that the woman is wrong about the tells (called “microexpressions” in the trade). But still, he shifts in his chair and makes a face, sighing a little too loudly to his daughter Emily (Hayley MacFarland) that the speaker is “laying it on a bit thick.”

Cal’s performance of humility isn’t very convincing (though Roth is always good to watch). But it does give Emily a chance to play savvy observer and truth-teller (“It’s called selling books, Dad, shut up and bask”). And it highlights again his propensity for drama, usually manifested when he bends truth even as he seeks and sees it. As this propensity tilts into moral disarray, it helps to make Lie to Me more interesting than its formulaic premise, that is, a canny elder leads a team of “diverse” youngsters as well as a lively sparring partner, in this case psychologist Gillian (Kelli Williams). Whenever Cal thinks he has a bead on one of those “truths,” than she’s asking question, usually about potential benefits to their Washington-based Lightman Group. 

The pattern is repeated in the new season’s first episode, “The Core of It.” It features a familiar procedural show gimmick—the suspect with multiple personalities, here properly identified by Gillian as “dissociative identity disorder.” When Tricia (Erika Christensen) introduces herself to Cal at the book-signing, she claims to want him to believe her—or at least see her lie and convince her it is a lie. She’s seen a murder, she says, but doesn’t know if she’s had a vision—a possibility Gillian doesn’t even begin to believe, intimating a neat little in-joke regarding all those medium-faux psychic shows competing with the more logical model Cal presents. “I understand the scientist in you sees every day as an opportunity to discover something new and wonderful about the brain,” Gillian says, “But come on: you don’t believe in psychics.” 

No, he doesn’t, but he believes Tricia. And so he decides to reassign to company’s latest big-money-and-prestige job (vetting a possible Supreme Court nominee) to 24-year-old Ria (Monica Raymund), a move that bothers Ben (Mekhi Phifer), the FBI agent who functions as liaison to Lightman, the possible nominee (who thinks she’s just too young to be credible), and Ria herself (who doubts her truth-seeing talent despite Cal’s frequent assurances: let’s hope she gets over this recurring tic soon). Cal likes to dismiss the mucky-mucks, though, and invest his time and energy in the more obscure cases. It so happens that this obscure case is also sensational—not only is Tricia the Georgetown law student not the “core” personality out of this girl’s others, but these include a boy and a hooker, complete with heavy mascara, deep cleavage, and a mini-skirt.

The hooker other, Jessie, also comes with plenty of attitude. “She’s very crass,” says Tricia, which helps Jessie to see a truth that’s not so clear to Cal and company, that what they do is weird. When she finds herself in Cal’s lab, specifically inside a big glass booth, peered at from all sides by scientists armed with monitors and gizmos. Appraising her audience, she smirks. “I’ve met some freaks in my time, but this place is perv central. I’m not some lab rat.” Of course, to Cal and his team, she pretty much is a lab rat, evidence to make a case, an occasion to explore the “human brain,” and a not-so-compelling mystery to stretch out this week’s episode.

Her accusation provides a modicum of drama, bolstered by that prosaic streetwalker’s get-up. It also speaks to the basic structure of Lie to Me, which regularly refers to famous liars (Clarence Thomas, Bill Clinton, Martha Stewart, Phil Specter), their faces displayed before commercial breaks or in scenes, examples of how lies are performed and consumed, as cultural breakdown but also as entertainment—a show for long since cynical viewers who don’t much believe anything they see anyway. The very notion of truth as conveyed by a “real” or “true” self now seems almost quaint. Cal’s assurance to the core personality that, after all his good work, “You’ll be completely yourself,” seems as much a performance as anything else.

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