TV Review: ‘Lie to Me’

01.21.09 9 years ago

Frank Ockenfels/FOX

When it comes to TV procedurals, squinting is the new investigation.

CBS delivered the fall’s lone freshman network hit thanks to the apparent draw of Simon Baker squinting on “The Mentalist.” Baker’s Patrick Jane isn’t a trained officer of the law and he doesn’t necessarily know all that much about forensics, but whenever he’s at a crime scene, he can usually pick up on things everybody else missed just be looking really intently.

TV’s newest squinting sleuth is Dr. Cal Lightman on FOX’s “Lie to Me.” Played by Tim Roth, Dr. Lightman is the world’s leading deception expert. Lightman and his team of experts assist law enforcement and government agencies by sitting down with possible prevaricators and squinting. Tell the truth and the Lord will set you free. Tell a lie and these guys will get you locked up.

[Review after the bump…]

Roth’s Lightman is the anchor, but the “Lie to Me” pilot also introduces us to psychologist Dr. Gillian Foster (Kelli Williams). The two have a dynamic that will remind viewers of the relationship between the Baker and Robin Tunney characters on “The Mentalist.” So he’s the genius with the questionable social skills, while she’s the cool-headed one with a little common sense and sooner or later ‘shippers online will want them to wind up in bed together. Thus far, they’re only joined by two other investigators, compulsive truthteller Eli (Brendan Hines) and new recruit Ria (Monica Raymund). My instinct is that this is too small a universe for a network series, but CBS’ “Eleventh Hour” has done OK with an even smaller regular cast.

As Dr. House has taught us many times, everybody lies, so “Lie to Me” seems to have an easy template for a long-running series. 

Using somewhat broad performances from the guest actors, plus pictures of famous alleged liars, “Lie to Me” offers a how-to manual on reading the signals of deceit. After one episode, I feel comfortable misusing phrases like “gestural emblem,” “distancing language” and “shame expressions” and as long as the people I know use these signals as deliberately as the show’s actors do, I’ll never be lied to again. 

The jargon is good and I expect the footage of lying celebrities will be popular with viewers, but mostly audiences should be reassured that “Lie to Me” is a fairly straight-forward procedural. Like nearly everything on CBS, if you miss an episode, it probably won’t matter because the “Lie to Me” doesn’t even appear to have the degree of mythology of a show like “The Mentalist” with Red John.

The show is pretty much all about Roth, who instantly takes his place among TV’s most compelling leading men. He’s brash and funny and, best of all, he’s actually speaking with a British accent. Since there’s no reason why the character has to be American, the producers just let him be British, which is a credo I’d love to see spread. Because Roth is so good, I’m even willing to go along with a subplot involving Dr. Lightman and his daughter, which is the sort of padding that usually feels superfluous on shows like this.

Nothing in the supporting cast feels as strong, though I never had any problems with Williams on “The Practice,” so I assume she’ll be capable. Hines and Raymund are less proven commodities and the pilot doesn’t give them much to do.

“Lie to Me” is a show that’s more about quality than commerce. Airing
after “American Idol,” it may not be loved, but it won’t offend anybody. Directed by “Flightplan” helmer Robert Schwentke, the pilot is handsome and processional and just a bit forgettable. Even looking back on my notes, I don’t remember the exact resolution of either of the episode’s mysteries. Then again, I almost never remember whether or not the patient has lupus on “House.” FOX is gunning for that reliable “House” audience with “Lie to Me,” leaving the riskier and artier stuff for Fridays.

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