Lie to Me

This new show from Fox is an ambitious project and may even have bitten off more than it can handle. But its ambition should be applauded, as there are few programs emerging from the Hollywood machine that even attempt to achieve what Lie to Me seeks to address. For it uses the character of Cal Lightman and his company, The Lightman Group, to help us understand the nature of truth in today’s world, whether it concern contemporary politics, the world of business, or the intimacies of our relations with others … and ourselves.

The Story: The Science of Microexpressions

As anyone who has seen the publicity for Lie to Me knows, the program’s “hook” is the science of reading the body, specifically, the body’s relation to truth and deception. As described on its official web site:

LIE TO ME, the compelling new drama from the producers of 24, stars Tim Roth (“The Incredible Hulk,” “Reservoir Dogs”) as DR. CAL LIGHTMAN, the world’s leading deception expert who studies facial expressions and involuntary body language to discover not only if someone is lying, but why. When someone shrugs one shoulder, rotates a hand or raises the lower lip, Lightman knows he’s lying.

Based on the real-life scientific discoveries of Paul Ekman, the series follows Lightman and his team of deception experts as they assist law enforcement and government agencies to expose the truth behind the lies.

As such, the program is clearly situated in the “crime show” genre, in which Dr. Lightman and his colleagues are regularly recruited to assist in various investigations, both official and unofficial, to identify the hidden truth. The difference from conventional television dramas involving police detectives and private eyes, however, is the science touted by the Lightman Group, which regularly confronts those that doubt the veracity of its claim to read the signs of truth unavailable to those not trained in its secrets. At it’s core is the assertion that “microexpressions” – fleeting and involuntary facial expressions – communicate one of seven universal emotions that their owners seek to hide or otherwise suppress: anger, fear, contempt, disgust, sadness, happiness, or surprise.

Increasing the program’s bonafides, the official web site includes a blog (“The Truth Behind Lie to Me“) in which Dr. Ekman, the “founder” of this approach to truth and deception, explains the “science” behind the episodes, providing tutorials on the major concepts introduced in each episode – emblems, gestural retreat, emblematic slips, distancing language, hot spots, etc. – and the extent to which the program departs from his understanding of the truth.

Pedagogy of the Suppressed
“The body contradicts the words”


But there is more than science going on here. For in the course of introducing us to the knowledge behind this method, Cal Lightman and his colleagues are shedding light on how the body functions, that it is more than a shell or instrument that acts according to its owner’s intent but, rather, has a “mind” of its own. It is this split between an autonomous body and the thinking mind that is brought to our attention, and not merely as an “objective” fact, but one that speaks to the heart of the mundane realities that define our everyday existence in which body and mind are engaged in a continual struggle for dominance. Microexpressions and other tell-tale signs of deception are merely the methods by which the body challenges the unilateral decisions made by its other “rational” half.

In other words: Science is deployed to shed light on a different kind of truth, one less concerned with the world of facts and evidence, than a different way of understanding ourselves and our ways of being-in-the-world. Science is but the portal to this other mode of sight.

One simple way this is achieved is through the statistics included in the program, which also populate the show’s publicity materials (and its official web site) (e.g., “98% of teens say they lie to their parents”). Numbers of this sort speak to our rational minds, and actively invite comparison – “Where do I fit in that picture?” In all likelihood, they invite judgment, as well. For example, do we find the numbers surprising (or not)? How do we compare with the statistical norms: “do I lie that frequently too?” What do the figures tell us about ourselves, individually and collectively? Is the picture they offer to us something in which we should take pride or is it merely the way it is? In laying the ground for questions such as these, the numbers provoke an intra-psychic moment in which we can calibrate our connection to truth – and deception – vis-à-vis the (statistical) others presented to us.

This kind of “scrutiny” is quite literally modeled for us in the character of Cal Lightman who peers into the television screen during the opening credits (you can see them here), as if to decipher the emotional traces on our own faces. During the course of each episode we also see him peering into the faces of suspects, politicians, parents, their children, and oversized projection screens upon which video recordings can be examined in greater detail – and in slow-motion – for the giveaway signs of what is hidden. And as if to underscore this legibility of the suppressed, The Lightman Group offices and hallways are lined with photographs detailing the minute and myriad signs, not only of deceit, but the whole range of human emotions, from sadness, fear, and contempt, to happiness and surprise.

As members of the television audience, we are being trained in the art of deciphering what we so often hide behind our personal masks. Fox’s home page even includes a battery of quizzes through which we can test and refine these new-found skills in reading this other – and often ignored – language inscribed on the body.

Who thought learning about emotional intelligence could be so cool … or fun?

The Social Unconscious
“The question is never if someone is lying. It’s why.”

In addition to stimulating our curiosity about this silent cipher on the body, Lie to Me also points us in the other direction, to the “outside” world, which bears a similar language of its own. This other language gives evidence of another kind of split, in this case between the world-of-appearances and the world-of-forces that lie immediately below the surface. This split is something with which we are all familiar, as we struggle to navigate the conflicting tensions that pull us in different directions. In fact, it can be said that these contending forces are what account for the the cases that come to the attention of The Lightman Group, cases that can be considered symptoms of the very fractures that saturate our lives.

When understood in this way, the storylines of each episode can be understood as tracing the tangled webs within which these symptomatic cases arise. At times, the plot resembles a medical drama in which doctors, baffled by a mysterious illness, chase down various diagnostic dead-ends until they finally stumble upon the correct identification of the patient’s disease. In the case of Lie to Me, however, the “dead-ends” do not lead nowhere, for the program is not merely a mystery which is tidily put to bed at the end of an entertaining hour. Instead, the investigative stop-and-starts paint a portrait of the knotted interdependencies that define the world within which the original “case” is embedded. Perhaps even within which it was spawned.

For the point is not so much to identify and punish the guilty – providing us the perverse satisfaction of vengeance exacted at a distance – than it is to unveil the nature of the environments in which all are implicated in sustaining ways of living that give birth to precisely the problem identified at the beginning of the story. The answer to the puzzle, in other words, is not a hidden psychological truth but a set of social relationships within which those emotions, desires, or ambitions are brought into existence.

In one episode – “Life Is Priceless” – members of The Lightman Group investigate the cause of a building collapse that has killed two men and trapped three others below. They interrogate several people connected to the construction of the building, including: a worker caught using opiates on the job; the city’s site inspector who, upon accepting an anonymous bribe, fudged his report; one of the workers trapped below who continued working on the job, despite being diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis; the mayor, who cut corners and fast-tracked the issuance of the building permit. Each of the people to whom we are introduced are examined and prodded to decipher the camouflaged language of the body, and each of them is found “guilty” of something. But the truth exposed here does not involve the motives hidden behind their faces but precisely the maze of forces that exert their influence on whomever is caught in their web. Each of them had “good” reasons for their behavior: the loss of medical insurance to pay for pain medication, the imperative to bring business to a failing economy in order to provide jobs for the unemployed, the need to save one’s home from foreclosure, or just to put food on the family’s table. In the end, it matters little who the actual (human) culprit is since we are provided another – more significant – portrait of the (inhumane) forces that converge on the construction site.

Many of the stories featured in Lie to Me may seem to be taken from the headlines. In a way, they probably are. The difference, however, is how we understand them, and this is the service that Lie to Me provides: it sheds light on the social unconscious which – when laid bare – gives evidence to the often unacknowledged structures and practices that organize our mundane existence and give birth to the kind of diseased symptoms that are the focus of The Lightman Group’s investigations. In this episode (“Life Is Priceless”), we see how the conflicting yet “normal” imperatives of business, politics, and family produce the very conditions for disaster.

Yes, this is about character, but it also about the web of imperatives and obligations that, at times, makes it virtually impossible to act with integrity. The pressure we may feel to lie or deceive – particularly about our public behavior – gives evidence to those forces that threaten to tear us apart.

Calibrating (with) the Suppressed
“Who made you who you are?”

The drama of Lie to Me lies between these two domains of the suppressed: the emotional life that exists beneath the body and the social unconscious that pulls us in opposite directions. This in-between space is inhabited not just by the “suspects” to whom we’re introduced, but the members of The Lightman Group, as well. For they are human too. And over the course of several episodes, we come to learn about their personal histories and character. Through this, we begin to see how their understanding of deception has been shaped by the specific elements of their biographies, and gain a better appreciation of how their personas reflect a certain mode of relating to the truth …

… as well as certain forms of blindness: for their compulsions and outbursts illustrate how their personal “truth” is as much a mystery to the them as it is to us. The promise of watching Lie to Me resides in the promise of discerning this other relation to truth, clarifying the emotional ties that bind, and those impulses that compel action beyond reason.

Much of this is evident in the contrast and tension that emerges between Cal Lightman, the founder of The Group, and one of his newest recruits, Ria Torres. As we learn during the eighth episode – “Depraved Heart” – Cal Lightman developed his special interest in emotional research on the heels of a personal tragedy, one he feels he might have averted if he had been more astute about this hidden language of the body. Ria Torres, on the other hand, is a “natural”: what has taken Lightman years developing as a scientific method, she can accomplish instantaneously without a second thought. What’s hinted at, however, is that her special talent has come at great personal cost. It is the unexpected benefit of a much darker set of experiences in which this “skill” was but a necessary response that ensured her emotional and physical survival. (See episode 5: “Unchained“)

As we become more familiar with these characters, what we learn is that such a hidden cause-source of talent produces its own blind spots. It brings certain compulsions of which its owners are only partially aware and over which they have little control. What makes emotional investigators such as Cal Lightman and Ria Torres “special,” in other words, is precisely their “dark side,” that which rarely sees the light of day. But as becomes evident during the course of this first season, calibrating with this underbelly of feeling is a necessary aspect of their work if they are to do it well. And this not only includes coming to terms with the past which gave rise to their relation to truth, but also those triggers that evoke the compulsions that lead to the loss of one’s composure.

In short, the job requirement is to “know thyself” … in ways more challenging – and perhaps distasteful – than most of us would care to take on for ourselves. The “science” can only work when one is dispassionate about one’s emotional attachments and, as a consequence, can dive into precisely those troubled waters that have created one’s aspirations in the first place.

In other words: to recognize the dangerous Other as oneself.

~ by mistified on 11 May 2009.

2 Responses to “Lie to Me”

  1. Several friends and I are complete fans of the show – best of the season. Though not totally convinced of its scientific authenticity, I find it compelling, fascinating, and thoroughly enjoyable entertainment. And your analysis is an excellent representation of the show. The show’s writing is outstanding, and so is your summary.

    • Thanks for you kind comments.

      As for the science: I agree … sort of. While it has been the major selling point for the show, I find it among the least compelling aspects of Lie to Me. As we are continually reminded – during each episode, it would seem – it has clear limitations (e.g., one can tell if someone is lying, but not why), which means it must always be supplemented by other ways-of-knowing. On the other hand, what IS compelling about the “science” is this: it alerts us to the submerged continent in each of us that is rarely allowed to surface, and the conditions under which such disavowals come to feel necessary.

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