Did we like it?
An inventive and mostly entertaining take on the detective genre, which is so desiccated it is a more barren landscape than Boyzone’s collective dignity, that adopts the concept of solving crimes through body language. The problem is that it embraces the philosophy wholesale, leading to the cases becoming more of a procession than an investigation, which is blessedly mitigated in part by the excellent Tim Roth as the lead Dr Cal Lightman.
What was good about it?
• The notion of employing body language as a method to aid the solving of crimes is hammered into the script from the earliest syllables as Cal extracts the location of a bomb that a racist has planted under a church.
• The scepticism of the audience to such techniques is skilfully manifested in the scorn of the local police officers who bemoan Cal’s methods. But who are quickly won over once he divines the location of bomb by coercing the racist into a series of involuntary tics and twitches. It’s an effective, economical way of advertising what the programme is all about but relies heavily on the brilliant acting of Roth to make it convincing after such a narrow palette of body language.
• Because the job of Cal is alienating to the viewer, as we always have to rely on his perception of the situation (which is sometimes aided by slow motion as if educating backward children about feelings), it’s essential that Roth makes him as human as possible, which he accomplishes by appearing to be almost bored by proceedings, mumbling platitudes before suddenly sparking into life either by smashing something against the wall of a lecture hall to cause ‘surprise’ in his audience or by becoming over-friendly with a suspect and shaking him by the hand to register if his body temperature has dropped – an apparent sign of agitation.
• There was also a very clever – or at least we assume it was clever – way to tell if someone is telling the truth about a night out – ask them to recount events backwards.
• And it’s the way that these quite technical traits are inserted into the narrative that minimises the tedious exposition that novel science can bring to a fast-paced drama. Facts about how body language gives away a true emotion are fired with stentorian precision from the gun-like mouths of any of the protagonists. And for the more complex theories, Cal’s assistant, the more sensitive Dr Gillian Foster (Kelli Williams) is on hand to convey viewers’ possible confusion.
What was bad about it?
• The central flaw in Lie To Me is that Cal and his team instantly know if someone is lying, and therefore so does the audience. This was often masked by the fact that Cal didn’t know what they were lying about, but such perspicacity dissolves much of the tension surrounding the cases.
• In the instance of James, a schoolboy with a fascination for his teacher who ends up murdered, Cal established in the first interview that James didn’t kill her. This then extending to a trail of interviews that eventually ended up at the school principal, who killed his colleague because she was about to reveal his affair with a pupil who he’d got pregnant.
• The superficial, well-trodden motive for the killing was necessitated by the fact that it took too long for Cal to reach him because of the hurdles that needed to be navigated. The manner in which Cal discerned the principal wasn’t telling the truth at an earlier interview was over in a couple of minutes, dispelling any chance for the conflict to be theatrically expanded. And to wrap things up nicely, the principal confessed to the killing to bargain his way to a 30 year jail term (as opposed to life), when all the evidence that Cal had garnered was the tearful testimony of his teenage lover.
• The principal himself was one of a number of villainous ciphers that Cal had to duel with. At the very beginning, we had the white supremacist who sported a shaven head and malevolent eyes common to the media perception of racists, who at least adopted the crushing lack of imagination common to his kind with an uninspired plot to bomb a black church. Meanwhile, Cal refused to help the government of Uzbekistan – another simple ogre – until they “got a constitution”, and James’ father was a one-dimensional religious preacher who forced his ascetic views on to his hormone-bitten son.
• Part of the problem with Cal’s ostensibly flawless insight is that the viewer just gets dragged along for the ride, never bothering to try and decipher the verbal inflexions or glaring eyes as Cal has already determined exactly what they mean far more accurately than you ever could rendering the dialogue – how the viewer would usually become emotionally hooked – all but pointless.
• Accordingly, this provokes a laziness in accepting everything he says as truth, something we were only alerted to near the end when he extorted a confession from the principal’s lover by stating that the innocent James had committed suicide in prison. It was only the first law of pilot dramas – there must be a happy ending – that meant we realised that Cal could have been lying, and we certainly wouldn’t have recognised it by his body language.
• It gets a but irritating when one of the cast pipes up, “(S)he was lying!” every five minutes.
• The Coldplay-esque saccharine, mind-rotting ballad that played across the last five minutes.