Lie to Me

At the Flow10 Conference, there was a bit of discussion of the ‘lost middle’ of television academia – we are fascinated by quality/cult television, and put quite a bit of effort into talk/soap/reality, but the ‘middle ground’ of television, the average multi-camera sitcom and the procedural, seem to be for the most part ignored. Now, I have some serious issues with this comment on a number of levels – firstly, it sets up an apparent hierarchy of quality that I’m not sure is entirely justified. And secondly, there has been significant work on sitcoms over the years, and Derek Kompare’s recent work on CSI is just one example of high-quality academic work surrounding the procedural.

My personal introduction to this thought: I watch a reasonable amount of television with my partner. But she and I have significantly differing tastes in our must-see tv. I tend to be draw to the two extremes mentioned above, both quality/cult television and reality. But she is a huge exponent of the multi-camera sitcom, and the procedural. Anything by Chuck Lorre is required viewing. Anything with Dick Wolf’s name attached ditto. CSI is a house favourite (with the exception of CSI: Crybaby as portrayed by David Caruso). Criminal Minds is required viewing. Now, most of these appear in my academic tv twitter feed at one point or another, at least earning a mention from one thinker or another. But one house favourite, and I freely admit one of mine too, seems to evade even the briefest of mentions. The show is Lie To Me, and we just finished catching up on Season Two.

One of the things that caught me by surprise is Shawn Ryan’s name (of The Shield and Terriers fame) as a show-runner for the second season. Also attached, Elizabeth Craft and Sarah Fain, whose credits include Angel, Dollhouse and a couple of seasons of The Shield. So there are definitely some quality people at the producer level. The cast is also of significant quality – Tim Roth may or may not be overly familiar to American viewers (except, of course, for a superlative turn in a couple of films by some no-name American director, Quentin someone), but his film work over the years has been exemplary, especially for me in Tom Stoppard’s “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead”. His acting credentials are well declared, and he doesn’t phone it in, providing a very strong lead. The supporting cast is also very strong – I’m not going to list them all out, but special mention goes to Hayley McFarland as Roth’s daughter Emily. But for me, the true star of the show is the writing.

We don’t often think about the writing in procedurals – it comes up in most other forms of television, but very rarely do we step away from an episode of Special Victims Unit marvelling at the dialogue. But for me, the dialogue in Lie To Me is frequently sparkling, quick, witty and often surprising. When we watch Supernatural, I often see it as a tribute to the truth in the character that I can pick how a character will respond before they do. In Lie To Me, I can almost never pick what a character will say, or where an episode is heading, and I see this as a major strength as well.

I’ve also enjoyed the mainly episodic flow of the series, with smaller story arcs over 2-3 episodes providing some on-going pleasure for the regular viewer. It really is a show you could dip in and out of, as with any decent procedural, but watching half a season in fairly quick time (this week) has also really illuminated the subtle minor story arcs.

This isn’t a particularly academic analysis, and I doubt that I will ever do one, but I really just wanted to put a couple of thoughts down on why I enjoy an under-recognised series.

Anybody else watch? Anybody intentionally not watch? Anybody forgotten that it was actually a tv show?

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5 thoughts on “Lie to Me

  1. Timothy Yenter (inessentials)

    I’ve begun watching season 2 on Netflix because Shawn Ryan was attached, and I had heard from some critics that there was a big step up in quality (I’m not afraid of that word) from season 1. I have a similar partner split on some procedurals (The Closer, foremost). I go in phases where I’ll return to CSI or L&O: CI as a refreshing break from the heavily serialized shows and sitcoms I mostly watch.

    And do you know if Craft & Fain overlapped with Ryan on Angel?

    • Mark S

      As far as I can tell, there was no Craft/Fain & Ryan overlap on Angel – Ryan seems to have been exclusively S2, with Craft/Fain S4 onwards, if my memory of ep names is serving me correctly.

  2. dkompare

    I admit I haven’t seen Lie To Me, but I am intrigued by its “mixed” status. It has both a cult/quality pedigree and a straight-up procedural sensibility. I presume that by now it has somewhat of a “cult” audience (similar to say, House, though that is more popular): i.e., people who watch it somewhat regularly enough to enjoy it on several levels, but not to the relative extremes of observation seemingly necessitated by following Lost or Mad Men. It’s a quiet cult show, in other words!

    Our expectations are so often overwhelming in this regard, no matter what justifies them. That is, series must still “live up to” or better yet “surpass” our preconceived notions for us (esp. academics, but these days, the broader TVitterati) to publicly embrace them. Disappointment follows when those expectations aren’t met. For example, while I was hoping that this season of CSI might inject some new life into the fading show, I was basing that too much on what I expected from a few veterans of BSG: writers Bradley Thompson and David Weddle, and actor Katee Sackhoff. As it turns out, while Sackhoff is gamely trying to shake things up with her new character, Thompson and Weddle are sadly delivering some of the most lifeless, derivative scripts of the series’ entire run.

    Since we can’t possibly watch everything, our preconceptions increasingly shape our interests and attitudes, and inevitably leave vast swathes of television under or unexplored.

    • Mark S

      I guess the reason I chose to write about it is because I struggle to see it as a cult show, because I never ever hear about it in the places I normally hear about cult shows. No comic-con panel. No coverage on AVClub, or on TWOP. No mention of it from any of my Twitter followees. I firmly agree on it’s apparent pedigree – but find it fascinating that it has ended up being regarded very much as “just a procedural”.

      I also absolutely take your point about there only being so many hours in the day to devote to TV watching, and so we have to make a choice. And yes, there will always be vast swathes that we can’t watch. And the nature of television academia is that to an extent it attracts like minds, who are more likely to be interested in the same programming. I also feel it’s a little self-perpetuating – I am currently the 1,421st person to be writing academically about Buffy, because I was drawn to television academia by reading academic work on Buffy. But that’s why I see posts such as this, and your work on CSI, and the various pieces on sitcom, and soap and reality tv as so important. The more diverse we are in our writing, the more likelihood that others with diverse tastes and interests will enter our field.

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