A movie directed by Bob Balaban
Characters and their interactions are what make television series (particularly dramas) succeed or fail. The premise and plots are, to my mind, secondary; both of these aspects must be at least a little appealing, but no matter how interesting the premise, if there is no chemistry between characters and the actors playing them, the show is likely not to have a second season if it even finishes the first.
Lie to Me*’s general premise seemed dubious. A former FBI agent starts a company taking his expertise to the public sector. His peculiar talent is detecting emotions (particularly lies) by watching the face for micro-expression tells. I like Tim Roth—who plays the main character, Dr. Cal Lightman, enough to spend a couple of hours to watch a couple of episodes (hey, that’s the same amount of time I’d spend watching a movie). As it turns out, the series was compelling enough for me to finish the 12 episodes of the first season in 2 weekdays.
The rest of the Lightman Group are Dr. Gillian Foster, psychiatrist, and Eli Loker, techno-geek who takes care of setting up the recording and analytic equipment. Lightman recruits Ria Torres, a “natural” reader of micro-expressions, from her job as an airport screener; and halfway through the first season, FBI Agent Ben Reynolds gets added to the staff.
Lie to Me* is a true ensemble series. Each character is a no frills cookie cutter character so that the series works as well as it does is entirely due to the actors’ abilities. I thought I had seen Kelly Williams (Dr. Foster) before, but I haven’t seen any of the other series she was in, (“Ally McBeal and “The Practice” among others); she is first among equals here. She is also the pivotal character since she is the balance to Lightman’s careless cynicism and the saner mentor to the younger members of the team. Suffice it to say, if you liked her before, you will undoubtedly like her in this role. Brendan Hines’s character, Eli Loker, practices what he calls “radical honesty” which is what separates him from forensic techno-geeks in a dozen other series and this facet makes the interaction with others that much more interesting. Like his kindreds, however, he has the hots for the buxom character …. Monica Raymund (Ria Torres) is the young, attractive, cocky “natural” reader of the disingenuous. Her interactions with Lightman and Foster explain to the general audience as much as Torres, that just because you have determined that someone is lying doesn’t mean you know why, or that you should say anything about it. Mekhi Phifer (Agent Reynolds) joins the cast after the Lightman Group gets caught in a deep background counter-terrorism operation, about halfway through the first season. If you liked him in ER then you get more of him here. Agent Reynolds is more function than real character, but is nevertheless believable; he is a conduit to the FBI which will help keep other episodes jumping with federal intrigue and he is pure muscle since he does not have any of the necessary talents to make him a full member of the crew.
This leaves Tim Roth. As with the others, he is convincing and does not upstage the rest of the cast. The only problem I have is with the type of character he is, and why I almost stopped watching. He plays a slightly off kilter uber-specialist who lacks significant amounts of social skills: House, Monk, Dexter (at least in the first 2 seasons), Law and Order: CI, and the British series Cracker and Wire in the Blood). I list them, where I did not for the other characters, because despite being an ensemble piece, the main character still drives the plot. If you do not like the socially questionable, super-specialist driven series, then avoid this one—while I like it, it is not as strong as most of the ones I list.
The weakest thing about it is the weakest thing about any specialty series: the first few episodes have to explain what the whole thing is about. In ER, for contrast, the show is set in an emergency room, nothing special there so let the drama start. For Lie to Me*, the audience must be educated in the mechanisms by which micro-expressions function. This means that characters that should know that raised, pinched eyebrows indicate lying discuss it as if it is the first time they have ever heard of it. This is clumsy, but I can think of no way around it from a storytelling standpoint, I just mention it in the spirit of full disclosure.
The cast is everything here. The easiest way to explain the recommendation is that if you do not like any of the actors, then skip it, otherwise it is worth watching at least couple of episodes.
What did you think of this review?
A movie directed by Bob Balaban