I like Tim Roth. I don’t think he is the greatest actor since Philip Seymour-Hoffman and he has made some dodgy choices in roles but he is charming, and he can fill a screen – large or small.
My first date with Roth was seeing him in Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs and he was sublime in the role of the undercover cop who falls for his prey (Harvey Kietel) which he then followed up with a small part in another Tarantino – Pulp Fiction, he made both of these roles his own and gained a place on my radar.
Fast forward a few years (has it really been decades?) and Roth has done Funny Games to keep up the street cred but he isn’t someone I automatically think of when I considering what new film to watch but like many good actors, he has capitalised on television’s new-ish status of being a legitimate vehicle of choice for serious actors to play the lead in the Fox production Lie to Me.
Roth plays Dr Cal Lightman, a character kinda-sorta based on real-life psychologist Paul Ekman (in a lovely intertextual moment, Ekman’s blog is called “Lie to Me”) who reads emotions by looking at facial expressions and body language rather than listening to words. In the show, Lightman runs a business where he consults for (or involves himself with) a variety of agencies and situations that usually need to know if someone is telling the ‘truth’. As would be expected, this is often based around crime and criminals and during the plethora of murders to be solved Lightman, who is portrayed as an eccentric, rather overbearing bully, uses his skills to identify the ‘truth’ about people, situations and sometimes life.
Lightman is an anti-hero. He can be extremely rude, he is certainly arrogant and although charming, one can’t help but be grateful not come under the scrutiny of that stare. The support character’s in the show are more conventional, even predictable; he has a rather eye-rollingly healthy relationship with his teenage daughter and his partner in (solving) crime Gillian offers the inevitable ‘will-they-won’t-they’ element to the show that draws on Bones and similar for the dynamic. I have just watched S2 all through and for approximately 30% of the show I could actually predict lines and dialogue – not just what was going to happen or ‘whodunnit?’ but actual dialogue – and that my friends is NOT a sign of a well-written show. S3 has shifted slightly in this regard – and I will come back to that point – but S2 really was average TV, take away the very charming Roth (who really does have a field day with this character) and there is not much left. So why the plug?
The thing I find really interesting about Lie to Me is the premise and concentration of the concept of ‘truth’. The show plays with the idea that there is a concrete, knowable truth to be found and that it can be found in and on the body. In an age of the uncertainty of truth (loss of faith in the media,widespread knowledge of news manipulation etc ..) Lie to Me offers a glimmer of certainty. Now access to this ‘body truth’ is of course only available only to Dr Lightman and company who are highly trained specialists, but in a time of diminishing meta-narratives and the widespread collapse of stable meaning, the idea that there is still a stable, fixed and know-able truth is reassuring – if we can’t trust the media or technology which have proven too easily manipulated then the coporealisation of information is an interesting alternative and I think that is where this show provides interesting viewing.
NOTE: Last night I started S3 and I noticed that Roth is producing, whether this has had a direct impact or not I don’t know but I have noticed that the narrative structure is less obvious, less easy and the character arcs are more pronounced with a little less emphasis on stand-alone epsisodes (although they still dominate) and a willingness to look through a darker lens. I like the changes – very much, but (ironically?) the show was cancelled during this season and there are only 13 episodes (S2 had 22). I’m not sure if the viewers found the melancholy turn less appealing but the show was cancelled and presumably for financial reasons.
I wouldn’t recommend Lie to Me as a great show. It doesn’t challenge the genre, is episodic in structure, is terribly predictable in places and adheres to traditional narrative structure like no-one’s business. But, Roth is utterly charming and it does have some interesting things to say about the nature of information, truth and communication – I’m just not convinced it does this with any self awareness.
Get your own at Amazon: Lie to Me: Season One