Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Stay Cool, Honey Bunny, I'll Totally Know If You're Faking

"Lie to Me"
Fox via DVR

Is it plagiarism if you're ripping off a show you already own? "Psych" and "Monk" are basically the same show, except the latter skews a decade older with its pop culture references. "Family Guy" and "American Dad" are utterly identical. The entire CBS lineup is cloned: a billion "CSI" spinoffs plus "NCIS," the "divorce-block" pairing of "Gary Unmarried" and "Old Christine," and the Monday night "our only concession to people younger than 50" lineup. But the networks, and their little cable cousins, are only providing what the market will bear. As for the nine different "CSI" shows, the public's appetite for extremely well-preserved dead prostitutes is something that seems likely to survive every one of the nation's political and economic turnarounds.

So maybe it's unfair to dismiss Tim Roth's new drama "Lie to Me" out of hand because it bears some startling resemblances to another Fox show starring an expat Brit. The show has an undeniably cool hook, and its signature editing trick -- the faces of characters caught in lies by Roth's Dr. Cal Lightman hard-cut into similar expressions on the mugs of lying celebrities, from Bill Clinton to Hugh Grant to Gandhi -- could make a very entertaining 15-minute Adult Swim show all by itself. Roth's awesome (he destroys the would-be boyfriend of his tween daughter with a single line) and the producers graciously don't even saddle him with the need to trot out his so-so American accent. Nevertheless, each time pure scientist Lightman and his rational-humanist sidekick (Kelli Williams) start feuding about appropriate behavior, it's impossible not to think of House and Cuddy. There's also a scene in the pilot where Lightman wings a mug against the wall during a lecture to make a point about surprise to his audience; it's so House-like you can imagine Roth writing out a royalty check to Hugh Laurie right after filming completed for the day.

What bodes ill for "Lie to Me" isn't its many uncanny similarities to "House" but rather what the two series don't have in common. The big thing absent from "Lie to Me" is any semblance of a backup team for Roth. You haven't heard of any of these actors and for good reason. The young underling who always tells the truth becomes tiresome before the end of the first episode. The new hire picked up by Lightman for her phenomenal performance as an airport security officer is so obviously a creation of fantasy that I doubt the character will ever recover. And Williams, as the psychiatrist who serves as Lightman's principle foil, is uninteresting and way less convincing than Roth at delivering the technical lines. There's potential for a lot of great storytelling here, with the utility of Lightman's specialty extending far beyond mere crime and politics. I guess it's also possible that the doctor's infallibility might make him too good, forcing the writers to employ ever-more straining tactics to keep mysteries running for the full 42 minutes.

Ultimately, though, "Lie to Me" is going to have difficulty breaking through in this hitless TV season due to the overall slackness of the cast. Kiefer Sutherland can carry a show single-handedly, but I don't think it plays to the strengths of either Roth's acting or this particular vehicle's concept to go that route. Roth is more a master of the sidelong glance than the explosive confrontation, which I'm sure is why this script found its way to his representatives. Trouble of it is, there needs to be at least someone in Roth's league among the regulars. They can't keep relying on guest stars, as much as I love seeing Joss Whedon fave Andy Umberger ("Buffy," "Angel," and "Firefly") getting work outside the 'verse.

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