Tim Roth is such an interesting actor that the prospect of him coming to TV should be cause for celebration — if, that is, Fox had seen fit to craft a vehicle worthy of his talents. Instead, enter “Lie to Me,” the latest slim twist on a police procedural that hinges on powers of observation, following USA’s “Psych” and CBS’ surprise hit “The Mentalist.” Fox’s template is clearly “House,” with Roth (keeping his British accent) as the irascible genius. Hey, it’s worked before, but to say this is anything to get excited about would be a big, fat, transparent you-know-what.
Having created the Dept. of Homeland Security’s “deception detection” program, Roth’s Dr. Cal Lightman departed (under hinted-at bad circumstances) to open his own private group, capitalizing upon his ability to read expressions and body language — identifying attitudes like scorn, shame and contempt.
To reflect this ability (one’s tempted to call it a “power”) in the pilot, the camera zooms in on people’s faces to an almost-granular level, making this one of those rare shows that’s actually painful to watch in high-definition, unless you have a thing for pores.
“The truth is written on all of our faces,” he explains in what’s obviously the show’s tagline, even using real-life figures (Bill Clinton! Dick Cheney! Kato Kaelin!) to illustrate the point.
In the premiere — which drops crumbs about Lightman and his colleagues, Gillian (“The Practice’s” Kelli Williams) and Eli (Brendan Hines), pretty much while running at full speed — there are two cases: One involves a murdered teacher, the other a congressman wrapped up in an apparent sex scandal. The particulars are secondary to giving Lightman an opportunity to stare intently at his prey, looking for the smallest head tilt or sneer that will expose the truth.
There surely have been worse hours on primetime, but seldom has there been one more predictable — not in the resolution of the cases, necessarily, but in every beat surrounding them. A law-enforcement official, for example, disdainfully calls Lightman “a carnival act,” at which point he blisters the guy with a series of revelatory observations about him. Take that, bub.
Roth is almost intriguing enough to pull it off, and there’s a nice moment when he recruits a new team member (Monica Raymund) with gifted perception skills — although if she’s really all that, most viewers would probably want her to keep that low-paying gig sniffing out threats at the airport.
“Lie to Me” flits in on the gossamer wings of “American Idol,” and Fox is probably hoping the audience that discovered “House” under those circumstances won’t immediately recognize the difference. Still, given the opportunity created by that timeslot, it’s hard not to be disappointed by the network allocating such plum real estate to another been-there, seen-that hour. Honest.