‘Lie to Me’ Season Three Premiere

“No distractions, no histrionics.” Even as his all-business-looking companions instruct Cal Lightman (Tim Roth), he’s distracting, twitching and glancing about at their tight space in an elevator. The camera peers up at all three, Lightman in the center. They look ahead, not at each other, shifting their weights as Lightman interjects: “I need a gun.”

It’s the start of a new season for Lie to Me, and Lightman is back to some old tricks, especially, unsettling suspects with his self-certainty. The third episode — airing a month before scheduled following Fox’s abrupt cancellation of Lone Star — cuts abruptly to Lightman in another mid-manipulation. Facing the formidable Meredith Spencer (Linda Purl), a lawyer for the publishing house now impatient for the book he promised them two years ago, Lightman is evasive, at least as evasive as any of the guilty parties he interviews daily.

Writing this book is difficult, he asserts, “like a high wire act really, especially since the whole thing hinges on a science. You gotta make sense of what you see you see,” he says quickly, “The human face is like a puzzle you gotta know what to look for.” Meredith looks steadily at his face: she’ not buying it. The book, he sums up, “is not gonna write itself.” She stops his rambling: “Are you saying your science is like an art?”

Yes, he is, but not exactly. This would be the point of Lie to Me, that amid the procedural details and solving of cases each week, the insistence on science based on visible clues and legible lying, Lightman is refining an art, as potentially inexact and liable to go wrong as any other art. He can’t admit this, of course, as the Lightman Group’s business depends on convincing clients like the FBI that he can read micro-expressions consistently, that his Facial Action Coding System is accurate. The essential tension in Lie to Me is regularly embodied and acted out by Lightman, as he asserts his honesty despite the doubts of others, as he seems to be lying through assorted interrogations and confrontations (most dramatically, in the Lightman Group’s own Cube, that most high-tech, intimidating glass-walled room), but is also, viewers might believe, seeing his own truth.

In this episode, tellingly titled “In the Red,” the book contract serves here as something of a distraction, and yet another source of conflict between Lightman and his not so infinitely patient and practical minded partner Gillian (Kelli Foster). As usual, she’s worried that he’s not quite honest with her, that he’s not told her about the contract and the advance paid, and so, hasn’t revealed that he’s put the company’s assets at risk. In case you’ve forgotten Lightman’s tendency to withhold information, his encounter with Meredith is intercut with a simultaneous scene in another room, where Loker (Brendan Hines) is interviewing prospective interns. “Some say he’s brilliant,” he tells one applicant. “He’s a bully, some say narcissist.”

Yes, this is Lightman’s gift, his House-like ability to annoy and provoke almost everyone around him and still end up being right about his art. In this episode, his target is Mike (Shawn Doyle), one of the men in the elevator with him, whom Lightman decides to save from himself. Though he’s just been released from prison and planning to rob a bank, Mike’s not a hardcore criminal, like his partner, Henry (Jamie Hector). Instead, he’s just a regular guy pushed to rash action by a series of topical circumstances, having to do with bank officers and mortgages. The episode hinges on Lightman’s scheme to save Mike from himself, by pushing the right emotional buttons (which he ascertains through FACS).

But, as usual, the episode is less about the case than about Lightman himself. That is, as he recognizes Mike’s waywardness, Lightman is not quite seeing something about his own mini-pathologies, his belief that his own system trumps all others. As Loker puts it to Torres (Monica Raymund) during one of their typical disagreements, “You just want to be like him, any chance you get to break a rule or a law and you just expect the rest of us to follow behind you and clean up after you.” At this moment, she’s about to pursue an investigation in a not-exactly legal manner, and Loker is supposed to serve as her lookout: he stands behind a fence, visible from her point of view, but the reverse shot of Torres — Lightman’s special protégée — shows her clearly, no fence, no Loker’s perspective. She appraises him, he shuffles.

It’s through such visual devices that Lie to Me repeatedly aligns viewers with Lightman’s view. In much the same way, the show frequently cuts to commercials via photos of celebrities looking variously guilty according to FACS, so that you might recognize the expressions Lightman describes, and so feel that you can see what he sees. The trick is, as one suspect says, Lightman retains his singularity. “You see the world differently, Mr. Lightman, You see things others don’t.”

Because he sees these “things,” Lightman disdains those who don’t. In seasons past, he had not only Gillian to provide a moral and emotional counterweight, but he also had Ben Reynolds (Mekhi Phifer), the FBI agent who was both the bane of Lightman’s existence and the embodiment of the rules he resists so vehemently. Reynolds’ death last season — performed with predictable anguish, complete with bloody body and long overhead shot — leaves Lightman and the show without a ready ally-who’s-also-an-adversary, without the FBI as a constraint. In fact, the loss of Ben underscores that Lightman is always teetering on the edge of loss, of his livelihood or reputation, his hard-tested associates or his long-suffering family (say, his ex [Jennifer Beals] and his increasingly independent teenager Emily [Hayley McFarland]).

This teetering sets up for the return of Detective Wallowski (Monique Curnen), serving in “In the Red” as a liaison to the official world, a stern partner in crime-solving, but willing to bend protocol enough to share information and sandwiches on a stairway. It helps that she’s unimpressed by Lightman’s intellectual shenanigans, that she has her own art form — detecting. Now surrounded by women (and the perpetually anxious Loker), Lightman may have to recalculate his distractions.

RATING 6 / 10