Thursday, January 22, 2009

'Lie to Me': All the Deceit, None of the Vicodin

The pilot for FOX's new detective drama aired tonight, after months of relentless promos and probably just minutes before anyone interested in it finally decided to turn the TV off, out of spite. Thousands have surely been lost already to the same impulse, and in a peculiar quirk of sadism or pig ignorance, FOX's solution to getting these people back will probably be more promos. Whatever they do, hopefully it works, because Lie to Me has the potential to be a very good show.

Its premise is pretty simple: Cal Lightman (Tim Roth) works for the Department of Defense and local law enforcement, detecting evasion and falsehood. Allegedly, this eccentric with a spotty past spent years living in far-flung regions of the globe, studying human facial expressions and physiological reaction. Today, when not solving crimes or interacting with his team — including a gifted naif, a smart older woman and a frank young man — he misanthropically uses his gifts to correct minor injustices, either vengefully or for the hell of it.

It's a fun show. It seems pretty good. Because it's House. And House is a great show. If it weren't fun or pretty good, the similarities would almost be insulting. Consider:
Lightman's a scruffy genius who wears sportcoats and is played by an excellent English character actor (Roth, instead of Hugh Laurie).

He hates being screwed by bureaucrats and uses his detective skills to bully them with insights.

At the end of the pilot, he tells a woman that the man she's having an adulterous affair with won't leave his wife for her. I'm not sure this has been covered on House, but every other sexual-relationship variation of the same crushing disclosure has.

An unrelated examination of a congressman's evasive gestures gives him an insight into the evasive gestures of the suspect in the main case he's been called upon to investigate. Likewise, Dr. House often diagnoses his critically ill "main" patients by dealing with seemingly trivial and unrelated cases in the hospital's free clinic.

He double-parks his car to block in a man who stole his parking spot. House spent a week in a wheelchair and then emotionally blackmailed Dr. Cuddy to get a handicapped space back.

Speaking of Cuddy, Gillian Foster (Kelli Williams) seems to exist to take care of Lightman and be an emotional foil despite his seeing through her and the superficialities of her relationships, including the friendship she has with him. Likewise, House has routinely mocked both Cuddy's prospective sperm donors and her few dates or hookups.

Instead of Dr. Cameron asking why she was hired in the House pilot, we see why Ria Torres (Monica Raymund) was hired, then watch as, like Dr. Cameron, she seems baffled by the inscrutable hypocrisy of her new employer.

Just as the cameras in House bore inside the afflicted patients, when suspects lie in this show, the edits jump to previous snapshots and diagrams of forms of deceit to clue the audience in on the diagnosis.
The only rough edges of comparison are Eli Loker (Brendan Hines), an assistant who's taken to telling the truth about everything instead of lying about anything, and a daughter, Emily (Kay Panabaker), who Lightman seems to treat as an equal. Instead of a Foreman and Chase whom House sees through, Lightman's Brendan is transparent by choice. Meanwhile, despite lacking a Wilson character, the buddy relationship and human intimacy seems split between Emily and colleague/assistant Gillian.

There's nothing really wrong with ripping off and tweaking a successful show. If anything, it shows a bit of modesty and decency that FOX paid for a ripoff instead of simply paying to clone House, as the producers of CSI would have done. And besides, House is just Sherlock Holmes stories modernized and stuck in medicine. Wilson is Watson. Cuddy is the housekeeper. The assistants are the Baker St. Irregulars, and the rest of the medical community is Lestrade/Gregson.

Instead, what's interesting about Lie to Me is that House was a medical gloss on the detective story, while Lie to Me affects originality by removing the original glosses House added and presenting essentially a stripped down police procedural. It's like if Microsoft's response to Apple's updating the cell phone by making the iPhone had been making a cell phone and advertising how it couldn't browse the internet, use widgets or play games or MP3s. Sure, it might do what it does really well, but it's sort of a strange sell to make. Why piggyback on a stylistic upgrade of a form by adopting all the fundamentals and downgrading the bells and whistles?

Part of what made House fresh is that:
a. Most medical shows aren't about figuring out what someone has but rather about people who can't act making stupid faces in soft-focus close-ups while wrestling with cutting people open, turning them over to family services, reporting them for manslaughter in self-defense, fucking them after they became a ghost, converting to Catholicism to make them feel better, convincing their racist mind that they need this Jewish donor heart or just generally having to still seem emotionally shattered that the 150th boy they've seen suffering from bone cancer—surprise!—died from it.
b. At a certain age, we pretty much all know the whatdunit part of crime dramas. You can try to throw a lot of misdirection in there, but when there's a dead body, it usually comes down to guns, knives, lack of oxygen, fire and a few others. Even then, too much misdirection is a bad thing, because the show starts becoming Byzantine and weird. (For a good example, see Law & Order: SVU over the last few years, where an ordinary pedophilia bust would get preceded by infiltrating an arms-dealing militia of neo-Nazis in the middle of Manhattan.)
House kind of turned all that on its ear by making the usual causes also the usual suspects and even then making both of them rarely the guilty party. For example, it always seems like it's lupus, sarcoidosis, vasculitis or paraneoplastic syndrome — but only at first. In fact, it's so rarely one of those things, that those diagnoses have become in-show jokes.* Later it turns out to be something often innocuous or totally unexpected, like iron in the blood, a toothpick, black death, an air bubble, an un-vaccinated birth mother, tapeworms, or being a really hot teen girl supermodel when you've got cancer on the undescended testicles you were born with. Lie to Me's structure means it can't have any of that.

* — It actually was lupus once, and that episode was awesome.

Even philosophically, the shows are virtually identical. In the House pilot, we learn House's fundamental axiom: everybody lies. Over subsequent episodes, we learn his second: people don't change. Lie to Me couldn't exist without both. If people didn't lie, no one would need Cal Lightman, and if we didn't lie in the same learned and involuntary physiological patterns without variation, our responses couldn't be calibrated and discerned. The difference, then, between the two shows is the purpose to which their creators put these concepts. With House, lies necessarily obscure the underlying conditions, stringing the diagnosis out for 42 minutes of drama. Lie to Me is no different here.

But while Lightman might be trying to keep someone out of prison, just as often, he's liable to be trying to put them in it. Meanwhile, Dr. House is trying to make people not die. And there's the rub, because lying to gain advantage or avoid disadvantage neither illuminates nor surprises. But, at least in the House universe, frequently maintaining the barrier between life and death takes a backseat to maintaining a barrier between people and truth. As formulaic as House is ("We have to make him worse to make him better!" "You're insane!" "I'm right!" *patient crashes* "Wait a minute! This unrelated condition in a clinic patient has given me an epiphany!"), and as much as it's driven by comedic misanthropy, the fact that death is at its center elevates the discourse. When lies, fealty, betrayal, solitude and hatred take primacy over a person's survival, what you're seeing is a meditation on the human condition. When those things arise out of a reflexive pursuit of survival, probably what you're seeing is a description of the same. One thing makes you question what you expected; the other delivers it.

All that said, again, it's still a very fun show. Not only because it's strikingly similar to another fun show, but because it seems to be capably and amusingly written; the other characters seem eccentric enough to drive the requisite B-plots, and Tim Roth is, as usual, outstanding. Other little shortcomings jump out — the over-reliance on jump cuts to "lying" faces, the expository dialogue, the fact that Lightman seems to work for county governments and yet apparently makes an obscene amount of money — but those are the wages of TV pilots. The jump cuts and expository monologues will probably be phased to a minimum, while the money issue will either be explained away or just become one of those preposterous institutions of the show that regular viewers will learn to live with. (Like the 3-D imaging tube on Bones that can recreate anything and seems to be powered by Goldschl├Ąger.)

The show provides interesting actors, fairly interesting characters and a fairly interesting twist on the investigative procedural. It's just a pity that it bears so much of a resemblance to House, which conflated those same procedural elements with medicine, removed the cloying sympathy from doctor stories and underpinned it with a bleakly cynical empirical philosophy. Because, until this show develops its own moral philosophy or a deeper method of examination, what will continue to seem most interesting about it is that its creators decided to do the same, with less.