Early in tonight’s Lie To Me, there’s a throwaway moment that's fairly familiar to LTM regulars, though that doesn’t make the moment any less telling. An old friend of Cal’s—one Terry Marsh, from the UK—shows up at The Lightman Group, pretending at first that he just wants to have a drink with a chum he hasn’t seen in 22 years. But while they’re downing shots and chasers, Cal can’t resist “reading” Terry, and finding out that he has an ulterior motive. And Terry can’t resist getting annoyed at Cal for treating him as a subject.
Like I said, we’ve seen scenes like this before on Lie To Me, but “Grievous Bodily Harm” went a little deeper than usual into the character of a man who weighs every word spoken to him to determine the meaning behind it. It turns out that Terry does want something from Cal. He’s in dutch with a crime boss named McClellan—and is on a Scotland Yard/FBI watch-list himself—and he’s promised the boss that he can leverage his sordid past with Cal into a lie-detecting favor for the organization. Exasperated with Terry, Cal gripes to McClellan that like most criminal lifers, his old friend “never can see the end of the road,” and is always looking for one more angle to play. And Cal knows this because even though he’s legit, he has some of the same tendencies.
I wish the plot of “Grievous Bodily Harm” was as sharp as the episode’s insights into Lie To Me’s hero. Don’t get me wrong: this was an entertaining hour (mostly), with a lot of suspenseful scenes and good twists… some of which I didn’t even see coming. But the disconnect between the vivid characterizations and the broadly melodramatic stories are still keeping Lie To Me from being all it can be.
Consider the B-story of “Grievous Bodily Harm.” The Lightman Group gets called to analyze a video sent to the headmaster of a private school. The video seems to threaten some kind of massacre, but is it just a prank? And what student is responsible? This story starts out great, with Gillian leading the rest of the TLG team in a detailed analysis of the video and of the most likely suspects. But I cocked an eyebrow early when Ria blasted the headmaster for nixing Gillian’s suggestion that he close the school indefinitely. Only on corny TV shows do authority figures get yelled at by seemingly intelligent people for making tough but perfectly rational decisions. (Well okay, not only on TV, but it’s still an awfully predictable, TV-ish reaction.) And then when the story turns into the case of a suicidal teen wanting her classmates and gym coach to feel sorry for tormenting her, I pretty much checked out. I liked the idea of an authority figure sending out subtle signals to his charges that their abuse of a peer is okay—it’s an observation that fits well into the concept of the show—but all the scenes of tongue-clucking and chastising belonged more in an After School Special than a show about super-skilled human lie-detectors.
The A-story seemed a little more sophisticated, so long as you don’t look at it too closely. Terry asks Cal to help him repay his debt to McClellan by playing a little Texas Hold ‘Em, but it turns out that the poker game is just a test, to prove to McClellan that Cal is as skilled at reading people as Terry promised. Actually, what McClellan wants is for Cal to meet with some people who are trying to sell him counterfeit Euros, and to determine whether their handiwork is as good as they insist it is. Cal trying to get an insta-read on a counterfeiter—in a warehouse full of people holding guns on him—is exciting stuff—as is the revelation that one of McClellan’s men is an undercover FBI agent. (Though to be honest, I figured there was some sort of sting in the works.)
But does it really make sense for a crook to use Cal to see if someone’s lying about how talented he is? For that matter, does it make sense for Cal and Terry to try and beat the mob in a high-stakes poker game (even a fake one)? Looking back at how the whole story fits together, too much of what happens seems like flimsy set-ups for cool scenes: a chance to get Cal to the poker table, and to get him lie-detecting under extreme duress. A richer show might’ve played out these scenes a little more, isolating the moments that ring true. For example, while gifts like Cal’s would undoubtedly make him formidable at the poker table, contrary to what every TV show and movie would like donkeys to believe, poker isn’t just about “tells.” You can read bluffs correctly all night and still bust out if you don’t get better cards. It’s frustrating to see Lie To Me fall back on these stock situations (and resolutions of same) over and over again. A cast this good deserves better, and I honestly believe that these writers are good enough to give them better.
I know this because the little character moments on Lie To Me are so often so strong. I think of that wonderful scene at the end of last week’s episode, with Cal and Gillian reaffirming their friendship, their partnership and maybe even their affection for each other with a few simple lines and gestures. I think of Terry this week blasting Cal for trying to forget about him and put his rascally past behind. I think of the amusing attempt by Gillian to stage “an intervention” for Cal at the end of the episode for not involving his team more in his personal crises. And I think of snappy exchanges like Gillian telling Cal, “You look awful,” and him replying, “And yet I feel so much worse.” There’s no reason why Lie To Me has to be as lazy as it is. There are good people working on this show, but they keep doing just-okay work.
-And so we reach the end of our TV Club coverage of “Lie To Me.” I still like the show, but the readership is low and I’m not finding much to dig into from week to week in terms of themes or master-plot. (And I’m pretty sure any future take-downs of the show’s failings would be recapitulations of what I wrote above.) I know the logic behind what we choose to cover here at the Club can be confounding to some. We go by a combination of reader interest, writer interest and show quality, which means that while I’m sure many of you could cite series we cover that aren’t as “good” as Lie To Me, those other shows may draw more eyeballs, or may have dedicated writers who love them. (Or maybe they’re better than you think; quality can be pretty subjective.) All of which is my way of apologizing to Lie To Me fans for bailing, and saying that while I wish I could promise I was going to redirect my energies to something clearly superior, I can’t guarantee that I won’t be writing up some Gordon Ramsay holler-fest a month from now. Such is the way of things around here. (And frankly, such is the way I like it.) I can't ask you to excuse it, but I hope you understand.