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TELEVISION REVIEW

'Lie to Me'

Tim Roth does a fine job of integrating his character's traits. But please: Give the plots some more nuance.

January 21, 2009|ROBERT LLOYD | TELEVISION CRITIC

The most remarkable thing about "Lie to Me," the new Fox series starring Tim Roth as a "human lie detector" -- the only remarkable thing about it, really -- is that Roth has been allowed to keep his accent. This flouts one of television's recent trends, the hiring of English, Irish or Australian actors to play Americans. Roth's unreconstructed Britishness sets him against such faux Yanks as Hugh Laurie ("House"), Rufus Sewell ("Eleventh Hour"), Damian Lewis ("Life"), Simon Baker ("The Mentalist"), Jason O'Mara ("Life on Mars"), Toni Collette ("The United States of Tara") and Anthony LaPaglia ("Without a Trace").

To say that there is nothing else remarkable about the series is only to say that it is one more mystery series among many, although perhaps one more free-floating than most. While it's not free of the cliches of its kind, it is not bad at all.

That it has been based on the work and, in a Hollywood way, the person of the real-life Paul Ekman -- whose Facial Action Coding System classifies every human expression, and who has made a special study of the unconscious bodily mechanics of deception -- is interesting enough, but it does mean that the pilot, at least, is somewhat overstuffed with fascinating facts and close-up illustrations of twitches, tics and licked lips. (I did enjoy a fleeting visual comparison of George Bush and Simon Cowell in a lecture scene, both expressing "contempt.")

Fundamentally, Roth's Dr. Cal Lightman is the latest in a long line of master detectives with highly developed powers of observation -- he's Sherlock Holmes with a PhD (and three assistants instead of one) and a close cousin to the characters currently featured on "The Mentalist" (phony psychic turns cold-reading talents to crime-busting), "Psych" (super-perceptive police consultant pretends to have psychic powers to make himself seem more credible, oddly) and "The Closer" (Southern belle LAPD detective knows when you've been bad or good).

Helping out around the Lightman Group -- the expensive-looking Washington-based consulting firm that Roth's character heads -- are his psychologist partner Dr. Gillian Foster (Kelli Williams, from "The Practice," whom it is nice to see again), kooky leg man Eli Loker (Brendan Hines) and new recruit Ria Torres (Monica Raymund), whom Lightman and Foster pull off of an airport security check-through. Tests have shown she's a natural profiler.

"Have you ever had any specialized deception training?" Roth asks her.

"I've dated a lot of men," says Ria.

Although Loker, who has taken a vow of "radical honesty" -- he won't lie even about his sexual abilities -- is the designated comic relief, it's all a bit whimsical around the office. Williams eats chocolate pudding and drinks orange slushies ("How old are you?" Lightman asks her, exasperated), and Roth himself is a little odd. We are meant to understand that an inability to turn off his inner polygraph means that he can no longer live quite comfortably in a world of habitual prevarication.

Roth is a fine actor and a welcome presence on the small screen, and he manages to integrate a catalog of amazing facts into a character. But the show will be better for giving him more to do than bust liars, then explain how he did it.

For my part, I knew who killed the schoolteacher the moment the murderer walked on screen, because, while there is a science of lying, there is also a mathematics of crime shows, and to the practiced eye, there are few surprises.

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robert.lloyd@latimes.com

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Lie to Me'

Where: Fox

When: 9 tonight

Rating: TV-14-DL (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14, with advisories for suggestive dialogue and coarse language)

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