The measure of a good TV procedural, for me, lies in the way it handles its exposition. Every case-of-the-week crime show medical drama has to handle it somehow, but there’s an art to making it seem like a natural part of the story that not every show can handle.
FOX’s new drama Lie to Me is one of those that handles exposition well. Wednesday’s (Jan. 21) premiere, following American Idol, has to lay the groundwork for its case while at the same time introducing us to the highly specialized field of its lead character, human lie detector Dr. Cal Lightman, and it manages to do both without losing its story-telling momentum. It also offers up a fascinating new character in Lightman, and the show seems poised to join House and Bones in the network’s lineup of bright and entertaining procedurals.
We first meet Lightman — played with a gleam in the eye by the talented Tim Roth (Reservoir Dogs, The Incredible Hulk) — as he’s in an interrogation room with a skinhead who’s planted a bomb in a church. The FBI is outside, itching to take action, and the guy’s lawyer is urging his client not to say anything. "I don’t have much faith in words myself," Lightman replies, yet within a minute he’s figured out where the bomb is.
He does that, we soon learn, by studying "microexpressions" — the small, unconscious tics we all have that betray our true feelings even we’re trying to cover them up. He hires out his services to government agencies, law enforcement and other clients through his company, the Washington-based Lightman Group (Lightman’s work, incidentally, is based on the real-life work of psychologist Paul Ekman). Joining him at the Lightman Group are psychologist Gillian Foster (Kelli Williams, The Practice) and researcher Eli Loker (Brendan Hines), whose job has led him to a policy of "radical honesty" — that is, telling the truth in every situation, no matter how uncomfortable.
The premiere follows two cases — the murder of a high-school teacher in which a socially maladroit student is the prime suspect and that of a congressman who’s caught up in a sex scandal. In both, the show uses a multitude of push-in closeups, slow motion and scenes of Cal and his cohorts breaking down video to illustrate the various players’ tells. Their expressions are sometimes paired with amusing shots of famous folks, from Kato Kaelin to Dick Chaney to Simon Cowell.
The visual tricks, character introductions — including that of a new Lightman hire, TSA agent and "natural" deception spotter Ria Torres (Monica Raymund) — and the two cases make for a rather busy, maybe even cluttered, hour of television. Now that we’ve been introduced to the concept, future episodes of Lie to Me can presumably dial back the cutaways and relax on the amount of expository ground they have to cover.
But as I noted, writer Sam Baum handles all that exposition fairly well. The here’s-how-it-works dialogue doesn’t feel clunky (which is also a testament to the ability of Roth and Williams, who handle most of it), so the episode doesn’t get bogged down in explanation.
A lot of what makes Lie to Me fun to watch comes from Roth, who clearly is having a ball playing a guy who, even if he’s not the smartest person in the room, probably still knows more than anyone else. Lightman enjoys having that leg up on people and isn’t afraid to use it for his own gain or to prove a point, but you can also tell that it’s not always a treat for him to bear the knowledge that everyone lies, pretty much all the time.
Williams handles her role as good cop to Lightman’s occasionally tactless bad cop well, but you also get the sense that although Cal pioneered the work in their field, she’s every bit his equal otherwise. Hines and Torres are given enough to do in the pilot that it’s likely they’ll become full-fledged characters as the series moves forward.
If the show suffers in any way, it may be in comparison to The Mentalist, CBS’ first-year hit about another guy who sees things regular people don’t. (Although no one seems to be talking about how similar the concept of The Mentalist was to that of USA’s Psych anymore.) It seems to me that the characters are different enough, and the canvas of Lie to Me can encompass more than just criminal matters. Setting the show in Washington, one of the world capitals of prevarication, will probably allow for stories involving government and politics without losing the naturally high stakes involved in crime stories.
FOX obviously believes in the potential of Lie to Me to put it behind its biggest show. The early evidence is that the network’s faith in the series will pay off.