One of my favourite TV shows is Lie To Me. Tim Roth plays Dr Cal Lightman, an eccentric expert in deception detection who runs his own consulting business primarily assisting lawyers and prosecutors get to the truth. There's always a story behind the story, and the trick is to work out who's lying about it. His techniques combine reading of facial microexpressions, body language, gestures and human behaviour to discern the true emotions of everyone involved; often including his own staff.
Having learned the art of stripping away people's facades to reveal what is really going on underneath, Dr Lightman has an arrogant edge about him, which is tempered by his paranoia and the painful dysfunctional relationships that he finds himself in. He sees through the white lies that other people spin to soften the real truth from him, and relies on his ability to cut through the protective shields of other people's personalities to avoid exposing his own vulnerabilities. Dr Lightman was initially driven to study microexpressions by guilt after the suicide of his mother, who fooled her psychiatrist into into thinking that she had recovered enough from her mental problems to gain weekend release from a psychiatric institution; when in fact her aim was to get out just so that should could attempt suicide. The grief surrounding his mother's death, and his inability to prevent it, is something he still hasn't really got over.
It is ironic that in his quest to get the truth out of other people, Dr Lightman and his staff often resort to theatrics and outright deception. He will set up a false scenario or make deceptive statements purely to see how the person in question will respond; will they take the bait? Will they react with fear or shame? Will they trip up and inadvertantly reveal the truth? Hell-bent on getting to the truth, he is prepared to lie and cheat in order to do it. Yet because we can see that underneath it all he's quite a flawed character, he ends up coming across as really likeable. Getting the balance just right to make this happen is where the real acting skill is, and reminds me of one of my other favourite abrasive characters, Dr House in the show House, played by Hugh Laurie.
Aside from the interesting drama that unfolds on the show, Lie To Me has a lot to teach about human behaviour and interactions. The show is based on the scientific work of Paul Ekman, a psychologist who has studied the relationship between emotions and facial microexpressions. Main characters in the show refer to emotional indications in the expressions or mannerisms of the people they are working with, based on Ekman's work. We see realistic portrayals of guilt, shame, honesty, anger, resentment, scorn and other emotions, cleverly intercut with pictures of known celebrities in the same emotional states while going into ad breaks. Ekman's research has found that most people are relatively poor at reading facial microexpressions, but can be trained quite quickly to become better at empathising with other people through the use of a microexpression training set. Not only are we all fascinated by lying, and how to detect it, but this basis in real science makes for an intelligent drama.
The relationships between the main characters working with and for Dr Lightman always seem to be coloured by the absolute requirement to be honest with each other. Any deception is immediately picked up, given that they're all trained to recognise it instinctively. This seems to add to the tension between them, and particularly between Dr Lightman and his most senior colleague Dr Gillian Foster, played by Kellie Williams. Another character Eli Loker, played by Brendan Hines, subscribes to the theory of radical honesty described in the book Radical Honesty by psychologist Brad Blanton, which really blew me away when I read it recently. As a result, Loker often appears abrupt in his interactions with other characters. Blanton's theory is that most human stress is caused by our unwillingness, inability, or inculcation to avoid being really truthful with other people, especially in difficult circumstances. Sounds great in theory, but Loker's character suggests that doing so all the time becomes awkward and may even distance us from other people.
All good drama has things to teach about human interactions, but it's rare that the lessons are as obvious as they are in Lie To Me. Yet it works. I think they've got a good balance between plots that are dramatically interesting, and the quite overt inclusion of information about when someone is lying, shameful, or being honest. Sometimes the plots seem a bit far-fetched; Cal Lightman seems to attract way more than his fair share of trouble to feed his underlying paranoia. Occasional plot devices push me beyond the limits of my ability to suspend disbelief and just get lost in the action. But overall, I find Lie To Me fascinating for both the drama and what it has to teach about human dynamics, human interactions, and the art of reading other people's true emotions; despite what they may say they are thinking or feeling at the time.