When Lie to Me began in 2009, it was a simple midseason trial replacement that closely followed the successful FOX model of building a show around a rule-bending antihero who, despite his somewhat mad methods, is inevitably always right (think 24‘s Jack Bauer, Fringe‘s Bishops, and Human Target‘s Christopher Chance). Most specifically, it followed closely in House‘s footsteps, casting another wily British actor as its lead—this time, Tim Roth as the comically cranky Cal Lightman. Yes, it was yet another procedural, but one that operated on the sheer force of will of Roth’s personality.
And it worked: The show was picked up for a second season, with higher-stakes F.B.I. investigations (terrorists!) and the inclusion of the requisite gruff handler who would nonetheless come around to Lightman’s unorthodox yet effective methods (Mekhi Phifer’s character is named Ben Reynolds, but he could just as easily be called Scully). The changes are due in part to new show-runner Shawn Ryan, responsible for the character-driven The Shield and the fast-paced The Unit) and in part to the realization that lie detection alone wouldn’t captivate audiences for very long. To that end, Lie to Me added more risqué and convoluted plots to the first half of its second season: In the memorable episode “Truth or Consequences,” the question was whether or not a college football star knew he was sleeping with a 16-year-old girl; in “Secret Santa,” Lightman traveled to Afghanistan to interrogate a possibly deep-cover soldier. In both cases, Lightman’s emotions got involved, thanks to his precocious teenage daughter, Emily (the talented Hayley McFarland).
However, the first two episodes of the season’s second half make for an odd and erratic pair, a showcase of Lie to Me‘s unfortunate weaknesses and superlative strengths. First off, the bad: In “Beat the Devil,” a student—for some lazily scripted reason—decides to match wits with our hero, a decision that instantly convinces Lightman that he’s facing a psychopath. The trouble here is that the show never plays with the notion that Lightman might be wrong—and it can’t, because to discredit his science would be to discredit the show’s entire raison d’etre. In fact, the episode’s cold opening even adds in a witness (a traumatized girl who escapes from a shadowy man’s clutches while he’s busy digging her grave) just to ensure that the audience is never left in doubt.
Worse, Lie to Me often rushes to a quick resolution, and while it’s interesting to see the frequently life-risking lengths Lightman will go to in order to prove that his theories are correct, the result is that the show’s a little too perfect. House may inevitably get the correct diagnosis, but he’s usually wrong along the way. Lie to Me is a lot like watching professional poker: The thrill isn’t from seeing someone with the best hand win—it’s in watching someone with the worst hand win, and without that frisson of doubt, without that ballsy bluff, the show loses its edge.
The same can be said of the dreaded B story, a bit of colorful filler that’s tasked out to Lightman’s partner, Gillian Foster (Kelli Williams), or his underlings, “natural” reader Ria Torres (Monica Raymund) and the driven Eli Loker (Brendan Hines), who is desperate to prove his worth. In the case of “Beat the Devil,” Torres and Loker try to validate the claims of a beloved teacher who risks losing his license when he claims to have seen a UFO. It’s a gimmicky idea, and one that remains sketchily written. Worse, it stalls out: The actors are just going through the motions, and there’s nothing more boring than science by the numbers (just ask Bill Nye). The best moment of the episode is a thrilling clash between the unreadable psychopath and Torres, who he uses to send a message to Lightman: It’s unpredictable and surprising.
That’s what makes “Sweet Sixteen” one of the stronger episodes: A flashback to a botched assassination opens the episode, and it’s soon followed by a car bomb that leaves Loker injured (and angry), and which makes Lightman, who rarely shows fear, almost piss his pants at the thought that terrorist Jimmy Doyle might be out to get him. The truth is thankfully more convoluted than that, and the stakes are far higher, since Emily happens to be in town (and is the same age as Jimmy’s accidentally murdered daughter). As the flashbacks continue, we see how Lightman and Foster met: She was a psychologist ordered to discredit Lightman in the event that he became a whistleblower on the Pentagon’s attempt to kill Doyle. It’s interesting stuff, and it’s smoothly tied into the pace of the episode, which keeps dropping hints to a larger cover-up. Even Loker gets involved (though he and Reynolds are shamelessly underused), hacking into Foster’s computer to figure out what he’s not being told. Though the writers still drop far too many hints and come up with some ridiculously contrived confrontations, they at least keep us guessing, and that’s a good thing.
There’s an exchange in “Sweet Sixteen” that perfectly sums up the attitude Lie to Me needs to perfect. Lightman, convinced that he’s found the Pentagon higher-up who is really behind the car bombing, confronts the man in the middle of a press conference. An F.B.I. official scowls at his breach of etiquette and, after shooing the press out, sums up his displeasure with this: “Wild allegations.” Roth, shooting back his own patently smug scowl, replies just as simply: “Yeah—based in science.” And that’s the key: Keep the science in the background and the attitude in the front, and it’ll go far. After all, everyone loves to hate a liar.