01/21/2009 12:11 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

On Culture and Politics: Lie to Me and the Age of Obama

Whew! Now we don't have to assume that every word coming out of the White House is a lie. But even in our new Obama age, human nature hasn't changed; every day we are surrounded by lying, cheating, manipulative foes and friends (kind-hearted white lies count). A smart way to ease back to Earth is with the sharp new Fox drama series Lie to Me, starring Tim Roth as a so-called deception expert. He knows when someone's lying by the glint of an eye, the smirk of a mouth, the twitch of a brow -- he's Santa without the swag bag.

Roth's character, Cal Lightman, is based on a real behavioral scientist, Paul Ekman, known for studies of how facial movements and body language reveal -- and more often conceal -- emotions. The plots thicken because Lightman runs an agency that works with the federal government. In the pilot episode he solves the murder of a high school teacher (the prime suspect is a student from a rigid Jehovah's Witness family) and investigates a Congressman who has a dark secret (on television, don't they all?)

With fascinating, CSI style attention to detail, the series reveals how complex and pervasive lying is. As Lightman says while lecturing agents from the Dept. of Homeland Security, "If your suspect is surprised for more than a second, he's faking it"; genuine surprise is less studied. (That could come in handy as a guide to reading other people or a tip for outwitting them.) "It's a myth," he says, that liars avoid eye contact. And when Lightman shows the agents photos that display giveaway gestures, we see a rogues' gallery of politicians and other public figures. Hugh Grant and Bill Clinton, touching fingertips to their foreheads while explaining their sex scandals, signal "shame." George W. Bush and Simon Cowell's mouths twist to convey "contempt." (OK, we didn't need an expert for that one.)

But rogues aren't the only liars. "The average person tells three lies per 10 minutes' conversation," Lightman tells skeptics. The ordinary lie is what's likely to grip viewers; just ask Dr. House, whose motto is "Everybody lies." Lightman's business partner is a lie-detecting psychologist who can't see that her husband has lied about working late. Lightman catches the husband's deceptive look, but doesn't tell the wife. Should he? Think about how many times you've heard women say, 'If he's cheating I don't want to know."

Lightman's character may not have House's fiercely original charm, but Roth's appealing common sense and the show's savvy premise could give the series life well into the Obama administration, where it might raise some timely questions. In its overt cynicism, Lie to Me may feel like a throwback to the pre-Obama years. Yet it is also a reminder that while hope reigns supreme at the moment, telling lies is timeless. Lightman is, after all, not Santa, with a stark I-know-who's-good and I-know-who's-bad world view, and just as well. We've seen how disastrous such self-righteous certainty was in the Bush era. No, Lightman's strength is his ruthlessly honest awareness that how we use the truth, and when we choose to tell the inevitable calculated lie, are the essence of morality. It's hard to argue with Lightman's realistic assumption of rampant deceit, but then who wants to root against Obama's promise of more transparency? We can only watch to see how or if they coexist.

Lie to Me premieres on Jan. 21st on Fox, right after American Idol. DVR both, watch the shows in reverse order, and see if the Idol judges' smiles and twitches don't take on murkier meanings -- because what are the odds they mean every word they say?