Friday, January 30, 2009

The Way They Hold Their Eyes

"Every gambler knows that the secret of survivin' is knowin' what the cards are by the way they hold their eyes." – Kenny Rogers, The Gambler

Ole Kenny may have overstated it, but Poker players know all about "tells"; non-verbal cues that can reveal the quality of a player's hand. It might be as subtle as obvious as a tremor in the hands (indicative of a very good hand – the shaking is due to excitement rather than fear) or as individual as a facial tic. Indeed Mike Caro, known as "The Mad Genius of Poker" has made a comprehensive examination of tells in both books and videos. But what if this concept of "tells" could be used in everyday life, to determine if people were lying or telling the truth? That's the premise behind the new FOX series Lie To Me, and unbelievably, while the characters and storylines are fictional, the science is based on the very real work of Dr. Paul Ekman.

I had planned to write this review up last week and I had it mostly completed, but it struck me that this was a show that I should really watch a second episode of in order to get a true sense of the show. After all, the pilot is frequently used to introduce concepts and characters; the pilot episode of Lie To Me does exactly that. That makes the circumstances different, which I suspect Dr. Ekman would compensate for but I think I've got time enough to wait, at least based on the first episode ratings. The thing is that in this particular case I want to see the dynamics between all four leading members of the cast and that wasn't really apparent in the first episode. The major focus was on the lead characters, Dr. Cal Lightman (Tim Roth) and Dr. Gillian Foster (Kelli Williams). Of the other two major characters, new employee Ria Torres (Monica Raymund) mainly gets to observe and ask questions, while researcher Eli Loker (Brendan Hines) barely gets half a dozen lines. Which is why this coming out after the second episode of the show rather than the first. (And the fact that the original version was taking me way too long to write has absolutely nothing to do with it.... not much anyway). I think I was wise to wait for this episode because Eli and Ria got more screen time that was actually integral to the plot, and while I didn't get much more in the way of insight into eli, the character of Ria and her potential difficulties with Lightman really started to come into focus.

The episode started with an amusing little teaser as Lightman took delivery of a mystery package. The Department of Homeland Security brought a new, hand-held lie detector outfit developed for the Transport Safety Agency to the Lightman Group for evaluation. In fact they were waiting for Lightman to arrive in the testing room when he was opening up his mystery package. The new device seemed to be doing a pretty good job in the evaluation test, so you basically knew that Lightman would find some way to totally discredit the mechanical device. Sure enough he did. First explaining that the ostrich egg, one of which had been the contents of his mystery package, was the first handheld lie detector, he then set out to change the parameters of the test. Giving the Ostrich Egg to the man from the TSA and explaining how the tribes of Africa used ostrich eggs as lie detectors – if a man was lying the egg would break in his hands – he then replaced the man who had been asking the test questions with a beautiful woman with a large...cleavage. The woman asked the test subject the same questions that the man had asked but this time, when he answered truthfully, the device indicated that he had lied even when it was patently obvious that he'd told the truth about the colour of his hair. Lightman then explained that lie detectors operated based on physiological changes, like increased blood pressure, pulse rate and the degree to which the subject sweats, but all of these factors can be altered by other factors that have nothing to do with lying, including sexual arousal. Oh, and the ostrich egg? Well the man from the TSA broke it when he lied to his superior from Homeland Security about how much the handheld lie detector had cost.

As was the case last time there were two cases which I suppose is going to be the pattern for this show, with Roth's character being the principal in the major plot line while Kelli Williams as Dr. Foster will be the one investigating the B-plot. Just fun (well not entirely) I think I'll get the B-plot out of the way first. The Lightman Group is hired by a university to discover if a highly regarded freshman basketball player named Earl White has taken a bribe for a well-heeled alumnus and booster to play for the school. They first encounter Earl after practice and he seems like a perfect example of a student athlete – an athlete who is also a good student – who is also raising his younger brother on his own, but there's a certain reticence to him in answering questions that Gillian picks up on. They get a much more solid reaction from the booster, Howard Taft, who had won a championship ring by "riding the pine" in the school's last championship season. Eli uses a gadget to pick up on three lies. The device is a Voice Stress Analyzer (and is a much more controversial device than the lie detector, which makes me wonder why it was being used in this show). The analyzer picked up three points where Taft's voice was stressed beyond normal levels when talking about getting Earl onto the team. Of course his voice also showed stress when he was talking to Gillian but as Eli put it, that was because he was interested in riding something other than the pine.

Having determined that Taft had in fact bribed Earl, they need to find a reason. Why would a kid in line for a huge professional contract be stupid enough to take a $50,000 bribe to attend this college? In reviewing recordings of Earl being interviewed they detect that every time that he was asked about his upcoming pro contract, his facial expression showed not happiness but anger. Moreover, when they review scenes of Earl playing there are times when they spot a facial expression that they eventually identify as pain. When Gillian – who is a huge basketball fan – confronts him, Earl tells her that he took the money because he knows that this is the last season that he'll ever be able to play basketball. There's not going to be a pro contract and he needs to money to be able to take care of his little brother. It's the only payday he'll get for playing basketball. Gillian knows this and has arranged with Lightman to give the fee they earned for this case to Earl as a scholarship to pay his way through a less expensive college.

In the episode's A-plot, Lightman is brought in by the Army to determine if a woman soldier is lying when she accuses her platoon sergeant of rape. Their unit is about to redeploy to the Afghanistan-Pakistan border and the sergeant's expertise is believed to be necessary. Gillian wants Ria to go with Lightman but he's initially unwilling to bring her along. We quickly see why. While the woman displays all of the major signs of telling the truth about the rape – crying and a quavering voice – Lightman picks up on subtler indications that she really is lying. Torres, on the other hand is convinced that the woman is telling the truth, not because of the visual indicators, but because of a belief that women don't lie about being raped. She's quite angry with Lightman until the whole thing is broken down for her by Cal and Gillian, and then she becomes angry with the woman soldier. Things aren't entirely as they appear. Lightman bring three women soldiers from the platoon to the office, where he has the interview with the accuser on the big screen TV in the conference room. He pauses the interview when the soldiers come in. Taking one of them to an interview room he leaves two of them in the conference room with the remote control... and a hidden surveillance camera. As he expected the women run the rest of the interview. It is, as Cal explains, human nature, and his real interest is in seeing the women's reactions to the interview. While their expressions aren't sympathetic to the woman who accused the sergeant there is a definite reaction of disgust whenever the sergeant is mentioned. While it is clear that they don't believe the accuser there is obviously something going on. While the sergeant isn't guilty of the rape that he's accused of, the women of the platoon clearly know that he's done something bad. Lightman wants to know what it is before the platoon deploys.

Cal and Gillian decide that the obvious answer is that the soldier who accused her sergeant is doing so to get justice for someone else. It clearly isn't one of the other three women in the platoon, so they decide to check for women who aren't with the unit anymore. The come across one woman – Private Metz – who went AWOL four months earlier, after the platoon returned to the United States. To discover the true story they need to find her. Cal and Ria go to the home of Metz's grandfather (a nice bit role for veteran character actor Rance Howard – Lie To Me is produced by Imagine Television, which was created by Rance's son, Ron Howard). Seeing an indicator in the old man's hand movement, Lightman bursts into his home and audibly simulates an attack on the man. It brings his grand-daughter out of hiding. Once she reveals herself, Cal and Ria question her about what had been going on in the platoon. She confirms that she had been forced to have sex with her sergeant repeatedly while the unit was deployed. Both Cal and Ria see that she's telling the truth. Of course that isn't enough to prevent her from being arrested by the military police – Lightman had called them before they even went to Grandpa Metz's house.

Lightman is determined to stop the platoon from deploying with the sergeant, but they have a problem. The sergeant admits that he had sex with Private Metz while they were deployed in Afghanistan, but he claims that the sex was consensual; Metz was his girlfriend, and he has photos of them together to prove it. It doesn't take much for them – or us – to tell from the photos that Metz wasn't comfortable with being that close to the sergeant. She's visibly pulling away. In an interview she explains that if a woman didn't give in to the sergeant's sexual advances she would be made to drive the lead truck in convoys. The lead truck was the most dangerous position in a convoy because it was the one that was usually targeted by the Taliban. In order to save her own life, Metz had surrendered to the coercion. But how to get the sergeant to reveal himself? Lightman has Metz interrogated using a polygraph. The sergeant is watching the interrogation in an adjacent room along with his commanding officer, Lightman and Ria. Metz answers the questions truthfully about how the sergeant had coerced her and other women in the platoon into having sex with him. Finally she is asked whether she had ever been forced to drive the lead truck. She said that she had. This true registered as true on the polygraph. When that answer came out the sergeant started complaining about how she was lying, and he had never made her drive the lead truck. Despite the urging of his JAG lawyer not to talk the sergeant's words increasingly incriminate him until it is clear even to him that no one believes that he did not force Metz to have sex with him. As for how Metz was able to say that she had been forced to drive the lead truck when she had given in to the sergeant without being given that job, Cal deceived the polygraph machine by giving her a Valium. Nothing that she said excited her to the point where her reactions would register on the machine, even though both Ria and Lightman could tell that she was lying by watching her face.

I think it is reasonable to say that the central focus of this show is on the character of Cal Lightman. Tim Roth does an excellent job of portraying Lightman, giving the character an almost spritely energy. After all, Lightman is a not altogether sympathetic character. He is sarcastic and not a little self-centered, and at times self-satisfied. He is someone who doesn't suffer fools lightly, as is shown in the teaser segment of the episode where he effectively humiliates the TSA official with the ostrich egg. There's another sequence in which he sells stock in a company because of the hand gestures of the CEO in an interview where he touts the quality of the stock; later, after the stock has tanked and the CEO is trying to defend his previous optimism by claiming not to have known about quarterly report, Lightman actually says that he would expect a company CEO to be a much better liar. Certainly he is a very good liar, because does it several times in this episode alone. I suppose that there needs to be a certain amount of deception in this sort of job in order to make the truth come out, and it's no surprise that an expert on detecting lies should in turn be a very good liar.

The inevitable comparison (because comparisons with other TV shows and characters are inevitable unless either is so unique as to make it impossible to find something similar) is to Gregory House. The differences outweigh the similarities though. While House believes that "everyone lies" he's not particularly interested in knowing when they're lying as he is in knowing what they're lying about, and only in the very specialized field that he is dealing with. Lightman on the other hand is focused on the moment the person lies and in interpreting the meaning of the lie. While both men are sarcastic, and as I have mentioned, self-centered Lightman's sarcasm isn't as cruel as House's can be. Lightman is almost playful in this, which something no one could ever describe House being.

I'm not quite as impressed with the rest of the cast. Or perhaps I should say that I'm not as impressed by the rest of the characters. Kelli Williams's character, Gillian Foster, seems to be in the cast as the "voice of reason;" someone whose self-defined role is not just to be Lightman's partner but to be a buffer between Lightman's sometimes abrasive nature and the rest of the world. However, much of the time she isn't working with Lightman but on other cases. Gillian seems much less interesting when she's not sparring with Lightman. She's been the sympathetic academic in the B-plots of the two episodes that we've seen her take the lead in, and in truth it's kind of boring. As for Eli, well it's probably not Brendan Hines's fault, but the character comes across as a one dimensional smart ass. In the service of what the character calls "radical honesty" Eli often says things that are totally inappropriate. His so-called flirting with Ria Torres would be described by most people as very close to sexual harassment rather than clever banter, although she is smart enough not to see more in it than the actions of an overgrown adolescent.

The Ria Torres character is probably the most interesting of the supporting characters for me, but that's largely because of her interactions with Lightman and his reaction to her. Ria is probably the closest character to us in terms of experience if not in ability. She is part of the group but not of it as yet – and she may never be a fully integrated member of the team. She is what Lightman calls "a natural" who knows that a person is lying based on facial expressions without actually knowing the science behind them (Dr. Paul Ekman calls such people "wizards"). And Lightman is reluctant to have her, or any "natural" – around. It is only because she does as well as he does in a test where images are flashed on a screen and she has to name the emotion that he takes her along on this case. The incident with the soldier who initially accused the platoon sergeant of rape is part of the reason; she discounts the cues that the woman is lying about being raped because of her own emotional response to the crime and the belief that women don't lie about being raped. Gillian, more schooled in the academics of what they do, understands that the subtle cues about lying are more powerful than the obvious ones, and points out that about 8% of women lie in accusations of rape. Moreover Ria is sometimes surprised and even outraged by Lightman's tactics. Her reaction to Lightman having called the MPs to arrest Metz even before he knew (for sure) that she was there came across as a mixture of shock and outrage. The real reason for Lightman's antipathy to Ria may be a mixture of things. Someone – if I recall correctly it is Gillian – tells her that part of the reason is that she's uneducated, that she comes by her ability naturally and that it is difficult for someone who has spent twenty years of his life studying and developing his understanding of the meaning of human expressions to deal with that sort of untrained talent. Lightman himself provides another part of the reason. He tells her that when people in their line of work get it wrong it has the potential to hurt a lot of people. Ria picks up a sense of guilt when Lightman makes that statement and tries to call him on it, but he isn't talking.

The big disappointment for me about Lie To Me is in the way that the episodes are plotted. In the two that we've seen so far there have been two major plot lines and I don't think that any of them have been developed to give the dramatic impact that they could have. The plots in the first episode – a teacher apparently murdered by one of her students and a Congressman accused of repeatedly visiting a sex club – seemed rushed and closed quickly. I had a similar reaction to the rape investigation this week. Certainly the "murdered teacher" and the "Army rapist" stories could easily have taken up the whole hour on their own by adding further dimensions to the investigation of the allegations, and it could have been done without the episode feeling obviously padded. While I don't think that this week's B-plot with the basketball player was as strong as last week's plot with the Congressman with an illegitimate daughter working as a high priced prostitute – a plot that I though could easily have been a workable A-plot – it still felt a bit rushed in terms of resolution to me. It may not have been enough to carry an episode but I do feel that with a little expansion it could have been co-equal with another plot of similar complexity. All of this speaks to a problem in the area of dramatic pacing. It seems almost as if the writers wrote down the basics of a plot but didn't feel the need to develop much in the way of twists and turns and blind alleys in getting from point A to point B. This is an area they should probably work on.

Lie To Me is not a series that stands out much from the run of the mill procedural where a "genius" in an area other than normal police work investigating crimes. In this it bears a similarity not to House but to Numb3rs or to Eleventh Hour. Of course Lie To Me does break with that convention considerably. The cases they investigate aren't all murders, as is common in most procedurals, or indeed even criminal matters in a traditional sense. Moreover what the show does with considerable success is show us what is going on as well as telling us. Most of us don't get most of the math in Numb3rs or the "science" in Eleventh Hour, but we can pick up on the visual cues (exaggerated as I'm sure they are) in Lie To Me, particularly when Lightman points them out. It is a show that you have to watch rather than just see and listen to. In this they are clearly helped by the real Dr. Ekman, who provides a fascinating analysis of each episode in a blog at the show's website. I'm not sure that Lightman's personality and Tim Roth's take on the character, combined with the real science of what they do, can overcome what I feel are the problems with the dramatic pacing over the long term, but in the short-term at least I think the show is pretty solid.

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