Cal Lightman (Lie to Me)

Created by Samuel Baum

Presenting the human lie detector as prick…

Lie to Me is yet another post-millennial television how about “private investigators” who aren’t quite “private investigators.”

But while he may not be a private eye, trained psychologist and human lie detector DR. CAL LIGHTMAN does indeed offer the Washington, D.C. based and well-respected (if controversial) Lightman Group’s services in the aid of criminal and civil investigations, often on a confidential basis, on behalf of clients from both the public and private sectors.

That those clients tend toward the rich and powerful, police departments and even, occasionally the FBI itself, but in the long run it doesn’t really matter–they’re just clients. And not, as the temperamental, impulsive, slightly unhinged and prickly Cal makes abundantly clear often enough, his bosses.

Sure, it’s a gimmick, but it’s a good one. With his dark and troubled past, Cal is obsessed with the black-and-white world of truth and lies, but it’s the all-too-human gray areas that really trip him up, particularly in his personal life. He’s not exactly likable, but he is fascinating to watch.

In fact, despite the supporting cast of professional colleagues, assorted family members and occasional love interests, Lie to Me is in many ways a one-man show. Certainly, when he’s onscreen it’s hard to take your eyes off the squirrelly, bug-eyed Cal, seemingly always one shave behind, played to twitchy perfection by Tim “Pulp Fiction” Roth.

And Cal is, of course, the biggest liar of them all: a shrewd, arrogant jackass; a swaggering blowhard on the side of the angels, part trained psychologist and part flim-flam man, a punk rocker in grown-up clothes using every trick in the book, including body language, facial expressions, hypnosis and drugs, not to mention outright lying, cheating, stealing, falsifying evidence, insulting and berating suspects to get at the “truth”–whatever that turns out to be.

To the show’s credit, there’s no woo-woo here–the show was apparently inspired by the work of Paul Ekman, a real-life specialist on facial expressions and a professor emeritus of psychology at the University of California San Francisco School of Medicine, and Ekman served as a scientific consultant in the production of the series–though I suspect the good doctor is a nicer guy than Cal.

Despite the occasional mawkish descent into Cal’s personal life (I really don’t want to see his “cuddly” side), there’s much to admire in this flawed but often fascinating show. The ripped-from-the-headlines archival images that frame each segment, a barrage of stills of various celebrities and politicians caught in their own well publicized moments of disgrace and dishonesty, just add to the gritty, off-kilter “there but for God” vibe.

Deeper and often darker than you’d expect, Lie to Me is one of the few network crime shows to plough into the murk of ethics and philosophy and science and deliberately push buttons.

And now, as Cal would say, Sod off…


  • Lie to Me is derivative yet well crafted, predictable yet ever-so-slightly novel… it’s no wonder that Fox thinks it’s got itself a potential hit”
    —  Ken Tucker (Entertainment Weekly)
  • Lie to Me seems an unusually meaty, thoughtful and thought-provoking crime drama – another police procedural, yes, but one with a dramatic and mesmerizing difference… easily one of the season’s best new shows.”
    –Tom Shales (The Washington Post)


    (2008-11, FX)
    Created by Samuel Baum
    Starring Tim Roth as DR. CAL LIGHTMAN
    With Kelli Williams as Dr. Gillian Foster
    Brendan Hines as Will Loker
    Monica Raymund as Ria Torres
    Hayley McFarland as Emily Lightman
    and Mekhi Phifer as Agent Ben Reynolds

    • SEASON ONE Buy the DVD Buy the Blu-Ray Watch it now!
    • “Pilot” (January 21, 2009)
    • “Moral Waiver” (January 28 , 2009)
    • “A Perfect Score” (February 4, 2009)
    • “Love Always” (February 18, 2009)
    • “Unchained” (March 4, 2009)
    • “Do No Harm” (March 11, 2009)
    • “The Best Policy” (March 18, 2009)
    • “Depraved Heart” (April 1, 2009)
    • “Life Is Priceless” (April 8, 2009)
    • “Better Half” (April 22, 2009)
    • “Undercover” (April 29, 2009)
    • “Blinded” (May 6, 2009)
    • “Sacrifice” (May 13, 2009)
    • SEASON TWO Buy the DVD Watch it now!
    • “The Core of It” (September 28, 2009)
    • “Truth or Consequences” (October 5, 2009)
    • “Control Factor” (October 12, 2009)
    • “Honey” (October 19, 2009)
    • “Grievous Bodily Harm” (October 26, 2009)
    • “Lack of Candor” (November 9, 2009)
    • “Black Friday” (November 16, 2009)
    • “Secret Santa” (November 23, 2009)
    • “Fold Equity” (November 30, 2009)
    • “Tractor Man” (December 14, 2009)
    • “Beat The Devil” (June 7, 2010)
    • “Sweet Sixteen” (June 14, 2010)
    • “The Whole Truth” (June 21, 2010)
    • “React to Contact” (June 28, 2010)
    • “Teacher and Pupils” (July 12, 2010)
    • “Delinquent” (July 19, 2010)
    • “Bullet Bump” (July 26, 2010)
    • “Headlock” (August 2, 2010)
    • “Pied Piper” (August 16, 2010)
    • “Exposed” (August 23, 2010)
    • “Darkness and Light” (August 30, 2010)
    • “Black and White” (September 13, 2010)
    • SEASON THREE Buy the DVD Watch it now!
    • “In the Red” (October 4, 2010)
    • “The Royal We” (October 11, 2010)
    • “Dirty Loyal” (October 18, 2010)
    • “Double Blind” (October 25, 2010)
    • “The Canary’s Song” (November 8, 2010)
    • “Beyond Belief” (November 15, 2010)
    • “Veronica” (November 22, 2010)
    • “Smoked” (November 29, 2010)
    • “Funhouse” (January 10, 2011)
    • “Rebound” (January 10, 2011)
    • “Saved” (January 17, 2011)
    • “Gone” (January 24, 2011)
    • “Killer App” (January 31, 2011)
Respectfully submitted by Kevin Burton Smith.

Leave a Reply