With a few exceptions, we’ve steered clear of procedurals here at The TV Club, not because we dislike them—I myself am a big fan of classic detective shows—but because there’s rarely that much to say about them on a weekly basis. We cover House because that show can go to some weird places, and Burn Notice because it has a strong master-plot to go along with its Case Of The Week format. But by and large, procedurals tend to be light on rich characterization and provocative themes, so we leave them be.
Our reason for adding Lie To Me to the rotation—on a trial basis, anyway—has solely to do with the series’ new showrunner, Shawn Ryan. Dedicated TV fans know Ryan as the mastermind of the brilliant FX cop thriller The Shield, and the co-creator of the solid CBS military drama The Unit. Ryan and two of his longtime writer cohorts Elizabeth Craft and Sarah Fain were invited midway through Lie To Me’s first season to consult and contribute, then creator Samuel Baum asked Ryan to take control of the show outright for Season Two. Ryan reportedly liked the direction the show was headed in the back half of the first season—away from mere case-cracking and towards more character-building—and agreed to take the reins. Followers of Ryan’s Twitter feed have been treated all summer to previews of upcoming guest stars and promises of outstanding scripts, so it’s fair to say that some of us—me, for example—have been looking forward to the second season of Lie To Me as much as any other fall show.
And now, having seen the Season Two premiere, I remain cautiously enthused.
From the start, Lie To Me's premise has been one of the most original on TV today, though also one of the most limiting. Dr. Carl Lightman (played by Tim Roth) heads up an organization hired by law enforcement agencies, corporations, politicians, and the like to read the subtle cues that tell if a person is lying. Lightman’s not a typical TV hero; he’s not a cop, doctor or lawyer, and though he helps solve mysteries, Lie To Me’s idea of an action scene is to have Lightman lean his face in really close to another person and then start asking questions. (He’s like a less lovable Columbo.) The problem the series has had to this point is that even at its best, a case-driven Lie To Me only has so many “let me tell you how I knew you were fibbing” arrows in its quiver.
“The Core Of It” doesn’t reinvent the Lie To Me wheel so much as it tightens and strengthens the spokes. The episode follows two plotlines that don’t intersect, except thematically. In the main plot, Erika Christensen plays a young woman who approaches Lightman at a book-signing and claims to have had a psychic vision of a murder. Lightman can’t see any signs that she’s lying, so he invites her back to the office for a full interrogation, but after a few questions she bolts, and when Lightman tracks her down again he finds her turning tricks at a fleabag hotel, under a different name. (Even her handwriting is different.) Turns out Christensen’s character has a multiple-personality disorder, and her “psychic” self may just be remembering something that one of her other selves saw—or did.
Meanwhile, in the B-story, The Lightman Group has been hired to help vet a potential Supreme Court nominee. With Lightman himself too busy to do the job, he farms the assignment out to his young protégée Ria Torres (played by Monica Raymund), who immediately rubs the nominee-to-be the wrong way with her youth and her pesky questions about a possible past infidelity. In the end, Torres wears the man down and he admits to a minor indiscretion—he once became emotionally involved with a witness on a case he was judging, and he kissed her. He plans to withdraw his name, but Torres reassures him that hey, things happen. “You lived a different life,” she says.
That idea pervades “The Core Of It.” One story’s about a woman with alternate personas; the other’s about a good man who made a small mistake a decade ago. Elsewhere in the episode, Lightman confronts a man who cheats on his wife with prostitutes, and throughout he’s grappling with the possibility that his ex-wife Zoe (played by Jennifer Beals) might take a job with a law firm in Chicago, and drag their daughter halfway across the country. (Lightman, in a rare moment of candor, tells Zoe that the only role he really feels comfortable playing is his “Dad” role.) And Lightman’s partner Dr. Gillian Foster (played by Kelli Williams) is struggling to recover from her offseason divorce, and trying to make herself over as a new person—or perhaps to recover the person she used to be. So “The Core Of It” offers a kind of thesis statement for Lie To Me, noting that part of what makes it so tough to tell when someone’s lying is that we’re all in transition, all the time. It’s hard to hold people accountable for the mistakes made by an entirely different self.
It’ll be interesting to see how Lie To Me continues to explore this theme in the weeks to come, and to see if they can find a better way to resolve stories than the way “The Core Of It” wraps up, with generic shouting and gunplay and some pat psychological explanations. In the meantime, there’s a lot to dig about Lie To Me just in its superficial sensual pleasures: that cool glass box set at The Lightman Group, the ripped-from-yeseterday’s-headlines photos used as transitions, Tim Roth’s gravelly British accent and deceptively addled demeanor… even something as cheaply thrilling as Erika Christensen’s cleavage. This is a show about how surfaces can reveal truths, and right now its surfaces are some of the best in the business. Its truths aren’t bad either.
-It didn’t take long for iPhones to become standard equipment for movie and TV characters. In ten years, will scenes of people flipping through photos or sliding their finger across a screen to answer a call seem as quaint as walkie-talkie-sized cell phones seem now?
-Like I said, we’re covering Lie To Me with a “let’s see how it goes” caveat. If the show stays good and the comment section is lively, I’ll stay with it. If very few people are watching along with me and/or the show becomes repetitive in a typical procedural way, I’ll doff my cap and move on to something else.