Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Prepare for the Rise of the "Lying Experts"

Procedural shows are the narrative bread and butter of network television. Say what you want about the prevalence of reality shows or high concept macro-series, but the real mule of the network is the lawyer/doctor/cop procedural show. There's the lawyer/cop brigade of Law & Order, or the doctor/cop shows like the CSIs and Bones, or just plain doctor like House. (Doctor and Lawyer, when separated from Cop, will make the largest effort towards non-procedural drama, but it ultimately is marginal)

For the most part these shows put a marginal narrative tent over the fictionalized process of a profession that's usually a lot drier. Imagine a documentary with nothing but reenactments about something that didn't really happen. Without the voice over talking head context the characters are forced to do awkward exposition in their dialog (in an early, perhaps the pilot, episode of CSI one forensics expert explains the fabled historical beginning of forensics to another forensics expert. Not another cop, not a student, not a bystander, lawyer, but another forensics expert. And she's not offended by the implication that she doesn't know what is presumably taught in the first week of the first set of classes in school)

The center piece of these shows is the flashy cutting that accompanies the show's expert detailing his or her deduction stepping through the process and the MacGyver-esque explanation of how their particular science works, without the burden of following an actual deduction but one that fits the needs of the narrative.

The mildly annoying side effect of this is the rise of the couch-potato experts that will diagnose your symptoms (with perhaps a little help from pharmaceutical ads and news magazine shows), give legal advice, and detail how your hair print will give you away in your master crime.

Except of course, they don't. While we've come a long way from the 'end in a court room confession' style of Perry Mason, the actual experts that advise on these shows have created a 'least amount of believability' (more on this later, but it's really SR's term) threshold. Worse than someone who watches nothing but The Discovery Channel as his science credentials, they're operating on not even a fourth of the story.

Which brings us to the beast on the horizon, FOX's Lie to Me. Following the exploits of 'eccentric' a lying expert played by Tim Roth. Like House of Cards or poker movies have made many a layman an expert on 'tells,' this show promises to compound that frustrating rash of experts who no doubt will be scowering the faces of their friends and co-workers looking for signs of untruth and repeating statistics and ideas about lying presented in the show, regardless of whether they really exist or exist for the purpose of the show or even if we're supposed to trust the character that says them.

The problem is that the phrase, "To someone with a hammer, every problem looks like a nail" is never more true than in a procedural show, because any problem that isn't a nail doesn't make it on the show. Why would it? So for the purpose of the show, of course everyone is lying and of course there is a way to tell, and of course that method will be easily explained. But that doesn't mean that it will translate into the viewer's daily life.

Have you ever tried to have a conversation with someone who has arbitrarily decided you've lied about something trivial? It's like trying to talk while someone squeezes your head.

My prediction is that this show is going to produce a clutch of viewers that may be the biggest group of douchebags in the narrative tv audience.

Or maybe I'm just making it all up.


  1. I've been feeling the same way--it seems extremely unlikely that math (Numb-three-rs (I refuse to acknowledge the numbers-as-letters thing that started with Se-seven-en)) or forensic archaeology (bones) would consistently land a consultant in life-threatening situations--once, I can buy, but beyond that really stretches my patience. I also find that these tells and insights into human character are pretty banal--see this preview for Bruno Heller's The Noticer starring Patrick Jane:

    Was that made in the fifties--there are more observant guidance counselors on after-school specials.

  2. You mean I'm not going to win a ton of money playing Hold'em based on what I learned from Rounders? Scandalous!

  3. No, no that on is true...

  4. Anonymous4:32 AM

    Relax and watch TV.

    You're not impressing anyone.