“I don’t have much faith in words myself,” says Dr. Cal Lightman (Tim Roth). And with that, he encourages his interview subject — tattooed, bald-headed, and orange-jumpsuited — to take his lawyer’s advice and not talk. Set in a close-walled, whiter-than-white interrogation room, the contest is plainly rigged. As Cal spreads himself across his chair, the camera cuts to cops griping from behind the two-way mirror: “We don’t have time for this scientist to talk to the guy,” they sigh. After all, they’ve been interrogating him for hours and haven’t come up with squat on where he’s hidden a bomb meant to destroy a black church.
The start of Lie to Me thus introduces all the expected tensions and identifications. The bomb is literally ticking, the villain is sincerely awful and the doubters are rubes, establishing the hero’s cool brilliance as well as his admirable outsider status. And then the show, which premieres tonight on Fox, engineers a little plot-twisty, cutting to a lecture hall where Cal is using the scene you’ve been watching to instruct a class full of uninformed skeptics (one introduced in mid-grumble: “A DOD friend of mine told me this guy’s a total nut job, I heard he spent, like, three years in the African jungle with some tribe studying their eyebrows”). Now it’s clear that Cal’s straitlaced performance in the interrogation room is only part of a set of performances, layers of “lies,” if you will, designed to make you aware that, as Cal insists, everyone lies, all the time. He freezes close-ups of the bomber’s face to compare his “micro-expressions” to those of other famous liars, like Kato Kaelin, Dick Cheney, and Robert Blake, Marion Jones and Heidi Fleiss. “Emotion looks the same,” he declares, “Whether you’re a suburban housewife or a suicide bomber, the truth is written on all our faces.”
Along with basic concepts drawn from real-life psychology professor Paul Ekman’s work on nonverbal communication (his website promises “cutting edge behavioral science for real world applications”), Lie to Me offers well-designed (and repeatedly, very white) interiors, utterly formulaic scripting, and familiar characters (including a teenaged daughter for Cal, played by Kay Panabaker, who played Marg Helgenberger’s daughter on CSI and whose sister Danielle played essentially the same part in relation to James Wood on Shark). Assisted by the practical-minded, orange-slushee-slurping Gillian (Kelli Williams), Cal heads up a young and multi-culti team, including Will (Brendan Hines), who swears always to tell the truth, then demonstrates by telling newbie Ria (Monica Raymund) that he wants to sleep with her. Only just recruited away from her dullsville TSA job inspecting flyers’ baggage, Ria is “one of the naturals,” according to Cal, uncannily able to spot deception without formal training (she describes her informal preparation thusly: “I’ve dated a lot of men”).
While Ria interrupts the sheer whiteness of the show, she also brings an intuitive distrust that impresses Cal, beginning with their first meeting. She serves as your surrogate, as Gillian introduces her to the business (after Cal left a “deception detection program he founded for the Defense Department,” she explains, “Together we started a private firm that works with the police corporations and almost every federal agency”). Based in DC, they’re called by Homeland Security, U.S. attorneys, and private companies. The first episode reveals the variety of possibilities their situation allows, as they’re called in to solve a high school teacher’s murder, where the prime suspect is James (Jake Thomas), a student who also happens to be a Jehovah’s Witness, and investigate charges that a congressman (and new chair of the Ethics Committee, played by Randy Ogelsby) has been spending undue amounts of money at an “underground club in Georgetown.”
The separate cases go pretty much as you expect, with each interview cut into close-ups: Cal asks a question, the subject bites a lip or shifts an eye, and the lie will soon be revealed. Or rather, the reason for the lie will soon be revealed: as Gillian helpfully observes, the question is never whether someone is lying, but why. Frequently making such observations as well as ironic interjections, Gillian recalls Gillian Anderson’s Scully, or maybe Robin Tunney in The Mentalist, if not Marley Shelton in Eleventh Hour, Kathryn Erbe in Law & Order: Criminal Intent, or Bitty Schram/Traylor Howard in Monk: in other words, Gillian’s role as sidekick/helpmeet is exceptionally well-worn. Refusing to absorb what she calls Cal’s “twisted view of the world,” she also reframes his assessment that she’s a “terrible liar.” “Normal people think that’s a good thing,” she smiles.
As it’s plain enough she’s not living among “normal people,” Gillian holds her own, hopeful and maybe naïve, conducting interviews and observing acutely, coming up with her own measures of the whole nonverbal communication thing. An early revelation that she’s involved with a man who’s lying to her becomes an occasion for Cal’s display of wisdom and his acceptance of daily lies. While Gillian looks stuck already, Cal (thanks to Tim Roth, as opposed to the didactic script and camerawork) appears more complicated, vulnerable as well as cocky.