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Excellent main character, somewhat flawed concept
on July 7, 2011
For the most part, I enjoyed the first season of Lie to Me. Tim Roth is a fine actor, and very well cast as the protagonist, Dr. Lightman. He lends depth and intensity to a script that sometimes veers into the dangerous waters of daytime drama. The plots are uniformly interesting, and nicely paced. The filming was crisp, and the directing was tight, which made up for the woeful mediocrity of the rest of the cast. (The one notable exception to an otherwise bland supporting cast being Mekhi Phifer who plays Agent Ben Reynolds. But, you have to wait until the end of the first season for this much needed spice.)
The real problem with Lie to Me is that, unlike Bones, there is very little science in the science. (And now I am going to speak as someone who has spent countless hours of doctoral research on cross-cultural nonverbal communication.) While the main ideas behind the psycholinguistics of deception are correct, some of the "data" presented in this show are completely misleading. Somehow the writers, whether in their ignorance of the subtleties of the field, or in the interest of presenting something palatable to a general TV audience, have missed the basic point of psycholinguistics, which is that nonverbal and paralinguistic modes of communication are shared by all members of a given society. In other words, we are all "naturals." Reading subtle facial cues ("body language") is a vital part of what keeps society going. In fact, individuals who cannot read these subtle cues are diagnosable as autistic. (Asberger's Syndrome is a form of autism in which the individual cannot read nonverbal emotional cues.) So, there really isn't any magic in reading nonverbal cues.
The other side of that coin is that we cannot correctly interpret nonverbal cues if we are not members of that society. While it is true that there are some universal expressions (fear, surprise), the vast majority of facial cues are culture specific. Lying falls into that category. If a Mayan Indian smiles, nods and says "yes" after being told the world will end in 2012, he or she is NOT agreeing with you, but he or she is also not lying. (Nodding, smiling and saying "yes" are merely signs of politeness. If you asked that same person if he or she had murdered someone after breakfast that morning, you would receive exactly the same response.) The only thing a psycholinguist can accurately judge is whether a person from a given society is displaying discomfort or anxiety. The cause of that discomfort is unknown, of course, and does not mean that the person is lying. (Which is why polygraphs are so notoriously unreliable. Telling the truth can make a person even more uncomfortable than lying.) In that light, I found the constant refrain of "You're lying!" to be not only irritating, but highly inaccurate. (There are also quite a few factual errors which not only reveal a profound ignorance of the legal system on the part of the writers, but an unwillingness to do simple research, both of which are inexcusable in the age of the internet.)
In spite of the reservations I have about this show, I still found it fun to watch Tim Roth, if not much else.