By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 19, 2009
From most so-called reality shows, you learn nothing. From "Lie to Me," a scripted show premiering Wednesday on the Fox network, you could conceivably learn plenty.
Debuting with one of the best-looking pilots in a long time, the series actually has reality behind it. It is based on research into what might be called "face reading" done by Paul Ekman, a celebrated psychologist praised for his trailblazing work in translating clues people give when they are lying. He can apparently learn at least as much from a twitch or a blink as even the best detective could deduce from a lengthy interrogation.
In the series, Tim Roth plays Cal Lightman, a character who seems only very loosely modeled on Ekman, even though he dabbles heavily in the same kind of endeavor -- translating "symbolic gestures," "deception perception," breathing patterns and many other such clues. "Truth is written on all our faces," he says, but he also believes most human beings are born to lie.
Like Ekman, Lightman has established a company to put his theories into action. Lightman is headquartered in Washington, D.C.; what better place to look for dissembling? The writers have given Lightman a back story that establishes him as a fictional character -- a troublesome teenage daughter and something unpleasant in his past about his work with the Pentagon. These facets of his life, however, aren't nearly as intriguing as what goes on at the office.
It's the show's intermingling of fact and fiction that makes it irresistible. The symbolism in a certain kind of sneer, for instance, has to do with scorn and is illustrated with a photograph of Dick Cheney. Famous alleged liars, such as O.J. Simpson, also pop up to illustrate the signals that Lightman interprets.
If a cigar is sometimes just a cigar, then surely people sometimes scratch their noses because they have an itch and not because they're unloading a whopper. Viewers of "Lie to Me" risk becoming hypersensitive to every little movement made by any little muscle in the human kisser. Roth, a very intensive performer, helps bring out Lightman's fallibilities and cynicism with persuasive power, and yet he retains an essential likability for the way he uses his gift and interacts with members of his staff.
These include Kelli Williams as Gillian Foster, who respects her boss but never fears him; Brendan Hines as Will Loker, who impractically tries to practice absolute honesty in his daily life; and Monica Raymund as Ria Torres, who is recruited from a security checkpoint at an airport. Torres supposedly belongs to that .001 percent of the population who have a natural proclivity for perceiving facial falsity.
Two provocative cases make up the first episode. One involves the murder of an attractive teacher, apparently by one of her students, whose parents happen to be "devout Jehovah's Witnesses." The other case, less compelling, has to do with a congressman suspected of making $82,000 in weekly payments to an upscale Georgetown hooker. There's more to these cases than meets the eye, but what meets the eye gives Lightman and his troops plenty to chew on (pardon the mixed metaphor).
One problem for the series may be sustaining interest in all these theories and insights week after week (factoid: "When you're lying, it's hard to tell a story backwards"). So many -- maybe too many -- are revealed in the premiere that one comes away feeling pretty well educated and wondering if there's really enough material for another 13 or 21 episodes. Of course, that's the producers' problem, not the viewer's.
For now, "Lie to Me" seems an unusually meaty, thoughtful and thought-provoking crime drama -- another police procedural, yes, but one with a dramatic and mesmerizing difference. The strength of the premise combined with first-class production make this easily one of the season's best new shows, and I say that without a twitch, a blink, a suspicious scowl or a telltale tic. And that's the truth.
Lie to Me (one hour) premieres Wednesday at 9 on Channel 5.