I knew I’d check out FOX’s new show Lie To Me as soon as I read who had the starring role: Tim Roth. Those two words guaranteed my presence on Wednesday evenings to see if this very interesting actor could make lie detection using micro-expressions interesting week after week. Five shows in and I’m still watching. However, I’m torn about the long term prospects of the show. I think it has some serious issues as well as wonderful draws, and I’m still not sure whether the presence Roth adds to the show will be enough to overcome some structural issues the show has. But I do know I’ve enjoyed the ride so far and I am rooting for the show. This week’s episode, “Unchained,” seemed to me to encapsulate everything I both love and question about the show. And overall? I loved it.
Structurally, “Unchained” follows the most common format for the drama: two concurrently investigated cases, with the cast splitting into two teams, one for each case. This time, Roth’s Cal Lightman runs the A story case, with limited involvement in the B story, which is led by Dr. Gillian Foster (Kelli Williams). I understand the rationale for having two cases: how many people does it take to notice and analyze a facial expression or body movement? To have all four investigators on one case would be overkill, unless the occasion warrants several avenues of investigation, as in “Love Always.” Since the team is most often dealing directly with a suspect or suspects and not involved in the crime solving aspects of a case, two people does seem enough to deliver The Lightman Group’s expertise, with room for an occasional consult among team members.
The problem with the two cases is, ironically, tied to the show’s chief strength: Lie To Me’s main attraction is the complex, funny, damaged, compelling main character Roth has created. When he is on screen, there is plenty of dramatic tension between characters, be they fellow team members or suspects. When he is not onscreen, we have time to notice that the social science of lie detection, while an interesting concept, is not overly dramatic. By this point in the series, I can already make a really good guess at the gesture or expression the team will zoom in on. Looking at a photo of a person’s face is not inherently dramatic — Lie To Me does not have the advantage of a police procedural’s chasing down a suspect or a medical procedural’s saving a patient’s life. It has to create dramatic tension from what is happening between characters and that is difficult to do in 42 minutes for two separate cases. The case that tends to fall flat is the B story.
This week’s B story takes place at a firehouse. Foster and Loker (Brendan Hines) have to ferret out whether a firefighter’s death was an accident or murder by one of his co-workers. The case offers fertile ground for discussion of close knit environments, hazing rituals, and unconscious racism, all the kind of intelligent discussion I enjoy in Lie To Me. But with a limited amount of time to tell the story, we don’t get to bond with the guest characters. We get introduced to them and given a thumbnail sketch but we don’t have the chance to form our own opinions and therefore get invested in the outcome. Everything about the case made sense and the acting was fine, but it felt a little more like a lecture complete with video than a dramatic story to which I needed to know the outcome. I’m still interested enough in the process that I enjoyed the story, but I was never on the edge of my seat, and I’m not sure the intellectual interest will be enough in the long haul. It doesn’t help that Foster and Loker’s relationship does not seem to have any hidden issues or agendas, so I didn’t feel I was learning anything new there, either.
The A story, on the other hand, works on every level. Lightman is the character who has captured my imagination and he brings a sense of hidden depths to every conversation. Lightman and Torres (Monica Raymund) have to decide whether a reformed gang leader with a murderous past is in fact reformed enough to warrant parole. This case focuses tightly on Manny Trillo (Paul Calderon) so we have more time to make an emotional connection. It helps that the first shot clearly establishes what’s at stake, at both a professional and personal level for Lightman and Torres. If Trillo has not reformed and is freed, he will bring about a dramatic upswing in gang violence and the drug trade. And if that’s not enough to get us invested, it seems that Torres and Lightman are at odds over the idea of violent people having the capacity to change. It’s clear right away we’ll be learning more about the internal workings of each character.
Guest star Calderon has a delicate touch with Trillo, keeping me undecided whether the guy was playing everybody or genuinely showing remorse. He seems too good to be true, but at the same time, Calderon gives him an appealing air of sincerity. Lightman is ready to accept the sincerity, while Torres is convinced that violent people do not unlearn violent behaviour. In a brief but loaded scene, Foster clashes with Lightman on whether Torres is a good choice to be on the case, offering both a hint that Torres’ attitude may be linked to being a “natural” lie detector, and that the psychologist knows a good deal about Lightman’s past and relationship issues. The usually easy going Foster seems to have some repressed anger, as she snaps to Lightman that “if someone needs to teach [Torres] about avoiding feelings, you’re the most qualified.” And of course, the line is also rather ironic, given that we know Foster’s husband is cheating on her and Foster can only be avoiding facing the fact, given her ability to read people. It’s punchy scenes like this that the B story lacks.
Lightman and Torres continue to clash over their reading of Trillo’s character. Lightman is convinced that people can evolve and he pushes Torres hard over her attitude to the case, demanding to know who was violent to her in her past. Torres refuses to engage in that discussion, but stubbornly repeats that violent people do not change and Holly Sando (Deirdre Lovejoy), a key testifier for Trillo’s release, must be being threatened. Lightman realises that this line of argument is in fact relevant to the case — just not in the way his co-worker is thinking. He authorizes Trillo’s release but insists on police surveillance while Trillo goes home.
In a well done reversal of expectations, we find out that Sando, a widow of the police officer Trillo murdered, is in fact the one with violence on her mind. She has not forgiven the former leader and testified for his release so she would have the opportunity to shoot him. In a tension filled scene, Trillo apologizes to her, saying he understands why she wants to kill him. Sando collapses in his arms, proving that Lightman’s take on both Trillo and Sando was correct. My heart was in my mouth for this scene, as I was at first unsure who was the murderous one and then whether Sando would actually kill Trillo as I watched. This is the kind of dramatic tension I never felt for a moment in the B story, unfortunately.
The best is yet to come in the Trillo case. Lightman finds Torres at her desk looking at a family photo and apologizes for how hard he was on her about the possibility of violence in her past. However, he tells her that all the “naturals” they’ve found at lie detecting come from violent backgrounds. When children grow up with the threat of violence at any time from someone they depend upon, they become experts very early at reading people. Lightman emphasizes the underlying theme of this thread of the show, as he tells Torres that people adapt to survive. Her lie detecting abilities evolved in response to the violence, so whoever hurt her made her who she is today.
Whether Lightman expects this to comfort Torres or not is not clear, but in any case, Torres refuses the opportunity to open up about her past, except to confirm that someone did indeed hurt her. Instead, she turns her gaze upon Lightman, who seems to have his own issues with the idea of a “natural.” Lightman has assumed the role of sometimes reluctant teacher to this uneducated member of his team, but it is perhaps the undefined nature of her ability that sets him on edge. Torres is a bit of a wild card on the team. The show ends with Torres throwing Lightman’s own observation in his face, asking him, “So who was it? Who made you who you are?”
That is indeed the question the audience is interested in, which is why the A story works so well. And because we are so interested in Lightman, by extension we’re interested in his interactions with the people around him. Torres has been a rather closed off character thus far, hard to relate to, but this episode uses Lightman to open her up so we have a chance to empathize and bond. I ended the show very intrigued with both characters. And I have no doubt I’ll be intrigued with whatever Lightman reveals about whoever he works with next episode. The issue is that with two cases an episode, that leaves the one without Lightman in a static space. It’s not quite dead air, but it isn’t crackling with drama. The show will have to decide how to make all four team members dramatically relevant to Lightman each episode. It’s a similar dilemma to the one House writers face — the supporting characters need to interact with the compelling lead character for their scenes to matter. House has had its own issues with this need and Lie To Me writers will have to find a solution that works for this show.
Tim Roth is a gift. He is the centre of the drama and the writers have to face the challenge of how to orbit the supporting characters around him. The A story of “Unchained” shows how well the show works when Lightman is centre stage.