The television series called“Lie to Me” is so interesting to think about and so relevant to some of the issues I roll around in my head, that I’m going to write a two-part blog. You might want to read the first part today or you might want to wait and read both parts at once tomorrow. I don’t know what to recommend, except that this post is going to be full of spoilers: it would be better for those who hate them not to read this at all until they’ve watched the series.
“Lie to Me” echoes “MI-5” quite a lot, both in things like scene transitions (the sound of a big noise -- door slamming?) and in the context set-up. The idea is that through the technology of micro-emotions and subtle physiological changes that people cannot normally conceal, Tim Roth and his staff can see things that you or I would not notice, esp. since we lack the capacity for super-closeups and slo-mo technology which they can use on wall-sized screens controlled with amazing precision. “MI-5” (aka “Spooks” elsewhere) used the same “shot-through-a-glass wall” or “shot through wire mesh” sorts of strategies. There is again the BBC-type axis of one powerful man who drives and shapes a staff including glamorous women and eccentric men. And the set-up for the writer is to play the private lives of the in-house professional staff against the public professional situations, which in this case is again governmental, law enforcement, and international diplomacy “needs-to-know” -- all webs that require secrecy and guile.
Assertions are explored. Some people are said to be “naturals” because their lives, esp. in the early years, have demanded that they learn to read people in order to survive. Children of abusive parents, prisoners, minorities in police states, and so on. One of the staff members IS a natural who was abused in childhood and this serves as a writer’s gimmick since things have to be explained to her: scientific studies named and so on. She is also the one who questions WHY the personal lives of the staff are protected: they lie all the time about their intimate partners and private lives and everyone can see it. But no one says anything. They don’t call it. The hubristic young man who claims a policy of radical truth, allowing him to be offensive and aggressive, is quick to abandon his policy when it is a matter of protecting his ego and his job -- and yet he goes to the “natural,” a Latino young woman, to tell her the truth because it burdens him. So what’s she supposed to do with all this stuff?
Especially when she begins to “see” into the Tim Roth character, marvelously played with all sorts of guile and twists. In the tradition of “Cracker” (the first of these in the BBC collections that I watched), “Chancer,” and “Wire in the Blood,” “Lie to Me” is way out in front. And again, the Latino “natural” is meant to explore the absorbing issue of what motivates a person to study lying so obsessively and what it does to his private life, which is elaborated through his teenaged daughter. She’s at the lying age, but she is also pretty open to life, aware that she’s learning. Roth’s character’s mother, alive for us in an old movie, is key to Roth’s character in the scriptwriter’s mind. It remains to be seen how this will play out.
This sort of “scientific” plot requires a lot of explanation, which is a bit of a weakness, but the audience seems to have an appetite for it, the same way that they do with the CSI and the Law and Order series. So much that happens to us now gets covered with media kudzu, which hides more than it explains. We’d like to have the tools ourselves without having to go to the library and read through stacks of “Psychology Today,” which the writer seems to have done for us. Most of this information has been around for a long time, just not so vividly presented.
Issues include how one can mask to hide from lie detectors (mild sedatives) or be misread by observers because of causes other than one’s natural responses (a woman suspected of murdering her child because she shows so few markers of grief because she’s been having botox injections in order to look younger).
Another brilliant stroke is that when the character (the actor, of course, who is being coached to produce the specific facial expression wanted) makes a certain face, it is immediately compared with photos of public figures making exactly the same face. Cheney, Queen Elizabeth II, Bill Clinton -- a LOT of Bill Clinton! -- all flashing disgust, contempt and just plain prevarication. Outright lies are not so common as small gestures: a woman sits alone waiting to be interviewed and she has steepled her index fingers together, then rested them against her mouth, which the team says is “hushing” and indicates guarding a secret. Sure enough, there are the public figures again, doing exactly that in circumstances that we know caused them to resist disclosure.
Another gimmick is rewatching a moment with the sound turned turned off. Deaf people have famously seen through hypocrisy because they are so attuned to tiny signals that most of us neglect because we’re following along the words and trying to integrate meaning that way.
One of the most powerful scripts is about a criminal gang leader, a murderer, who claims he has changed in prison because of solitary confinement which caused him to read all he could which meant that his natural intelligence has been captured and dragged him to empathy he didn’t have before. The problem is to discover whether he is lying.
Another fruitful course of inquiry is the person who is lying, sure enough, but not lying about what one THINKS they are lying about. In this age of illicit sexual liasons and private little money arrangements, there is a clutter of such dishonesties. Wading through them is one of the challenges of daily life everywhere.
Cultural differences are also fertile ground. The captured spy signals when forced to repent on camera by speaking in what seems to be a rather drugged way that her captors, who don’t speak English that well, can’t detect. Signals are sent by differences in formal bowing. Therefore, the Tim Roth character has to have lot of background in anthropology, which is great for set-dressing. Masks everywhere. Just like real life.