Tim Roth makes his American television debut in this 13-episode midseason series from Fox whose slogan aptly reads, “The truth is written on all our faces.” Roth plays Dr. Cal Lightman, a walking lie detector who uses the theory of “microexpressions” (split-second facial expressions that reveal a person’s genuine emotions) to detect whether someone is being intentionally deceptive. He runs the Lightman Group, a private firm hired by law enforcement agencies, corporations, and private citizens to shed “light” (pun surely intended) on a given person’s level of deception.
The pilot episode focuses on the case of a 16-year-old boy accused of murdering his high school teacher. Lightman and his partner, psychologist Gillian Foster (The Practice‘s Kelli Williams), are brought in to uncover the true intention behind the murder so the mayor can decide if should be tried as an adult. In the midst of this case, another springs up about an Eliot Spitzer-like politician caught in a sex scandal, and throughout we are treated to Lightman’s eccentricities and deadpan humor: “I guess we’re all here then: someone who wants the truth, someone who wants to be right, and us—the assholes stuck in the middle.” In spite of the character’s marked pessimism, Roth’s portrayal is relaxed, as is much of the show, leaning harder on a quirkiness similar to Boston Legal than a hard-boiled crime drama. And while the show bears some superficial similarities to the CBS series The Mentalist, the tone here is decidedly lighter—a fact that works in the show’s favor since, unlike The Mentalist, Lightman’s abilities border on the impossible. Because of this, a good portion of the first episode is spent convincing the audience that Lightman’s talent is genuine—and, in a certain way, it is.
Based on the work of Dr. Paul Ekman, the theory behind microexpressions is very real. Ekman has spent his career proving their existence and believes people can be trained to detect them. Like Lightman, he works with a variety of law enforcement and governmental agencies, training officers to spot microexpressions and read body language. Interestingly, both Ekman and his TV alter ego also refuse to assist any governments that do not support constitutional democracies. But the similarities between Ekman and Roth’s character end there. In the real world, it’s unlikely Ekman could leap to the conclusions Lightman does by simply observing someone from across the room. Ekman himself has stated that all microexpressions reveal is if someone is harboring a hidden emotion, not the meaning behind the emotion. The series confronts this flaw early on by inserting the Spitzer subplot, which doesn’t turn out the way it first seems. However, this doesn’t quite make up for Lightman’s superhuman ability to uncover a couple’s romantic affair while glancing at their faces during a conversation he can’t hear—a feat he does only 10 minutes into the first episode and which threatens to grow more far-fetched as the series progresses.
Lie to Me utilizes extreme close-ups on characters’ mouths or eyes to expose the microexpressions Lightman is focusing on—a handy visual aid, but one that soon grows repetitive. The other nagging feature comes from the poor actors who are placed in the awkward position of “flashing” these various microexpressions convincingly. Watching someone give a genuine microexpression (as the series illustrates by freeze-framing a video of Kato Kalen’s testimony during the first OJ Simpson trial), it’s apparent just how subtle these looks are and how difficult it is to see them let alone express them naturally on purpose. Very often, the actors’ attempts to “microexpress” come across hopelessly exaggerated, lending an unintentional air of surrealism.
Ultimately, Lie to Me is a showcase for Roth. The actor brings the peculiarity necessary for the role of the cocksure Dr. Lightman and, despite some fine acting from his costars (which include newcomers Brendan Hines as researcher and compulsive truth-teller Eli Loker and Monica Raymund as new recruit Ria Torres) and an amusing rapport, remains the only fully fleshed-out character on the show. And even with the amount of clever science on display in several scenes, it’s hard to believe the show could coast for very long on its microexpressions and Roth’s entertaining performance alone. Unless creators can shift Mr. Orange’s deception detective into an area viewers won’t see coming every week, Lie to Me‘s science gimmick is sure to wane thin soon into its short first season, a truth that doesn’t bode well for a series renewal.