Chewing Up the Small Screen

While more well-known for "big screen" parts, actors of note Tim Roth and Ian McShane can be seen raising the stakes on the so-called "small screen" this season in Lie to Me and Kings, respectively.

Book DigestIn the vast wasteland known as television, the gap between the Olympian heights of shows such as The Wire and the subterranean depths of reality TV and that ode to puerility, 24, is occasionally filled by brief flashes of inspiration (usually accidental): The Practice, Grey’s Anatomy, The Closer, and West Wing come to mind. What occasionally catches my attention is the appearance of splendid thespians not noted for working on what used to be called the small screen.

The new season (such as it is) brings two shows of some promise—for the most part based on imposing lead actors—the great Tim Roth (Reservoir Dogs, Rob Roy, Gridlock’d, The Incredible Hulk) in Lie to Me (Fox) and Ian McShane (Sexy Beast, Scoop, Deadwood, We Are Marshall) in Kings (NBC). It must mean something that both Roth and McShane (as well as House’s Hugh Laurie) are British. But the important thing, if I may say, is that both these gentlemen are actors who play their roles fully as opposed to stars, who normally play themselves.

In Lie to Me, Roth plays Dr. Cal Lightman, whose expertise lies in the detection of the truth, based on his skill in the analysis of a person’s face, body, and vocal mannerisms—currently known as “micro-expressions.” As a leader in this burgeoning field, Lightman and his team are employed by all manner of clients in urgent need of infallible lie detection. Dr. Gillian Foster (Kelli Williams—they should do something about her hair) assists, though woodenly—as opposed to her fine work in The Practice. Eli Loker (Brendan Hines) practices “radical honesty,” standing in as the kook of the team, and Monica Raymund (Ria Torres) plays the tough, seen-it-all Latina who is a natural in her new occupation. (Lightman hires her based on her interrogation of him in the airport security line.) This micro-expression thing wears thin, and I’m going to be surprised if the writers can fill even a season’s worth of shows. Of course, I was wrong about 24.

In Kings, McShane portrays King Silas Benjamin, who rules Gilboa, which has a war on its hands with neighboring Gath. David Shepherd (Chris Egan) disobeys standing orders not to cross enemy lines to save recently captured prisoners of war (of whom one is the king’s son)—David battles some Goliath tanks (oy) and retrieves the prisoners. Instantly a hero, David is invited to the court in Shiloh, the pristine, crimeless capital city. Intrigue, deceit, closeted skeletons, disaffections, and all manner of human foxfire are in play. Queen Rose (Susanna Thompson) is an incessant table-setter and tie-straightener—suffice it to say a frost seems to envelop her. Michelle Benjamin (Allison Miller) is the perky, five-talent daughter. (Guess who she puts in her sights.) Gen. Linus Abner (Wes Studi—who was outstanding in Walter Hill’s sadly underrated film Geronimo) is underutilized as one of the king’s advisors and William Cross (Dylan Baker) does his usual turn of Caucasian duplicity and malevolence. Given McShane’s endlessly fascinating, craggy visage and his ability to remain in the center of every frame with a kind of banked, tamped fury (he punches out a messenger who brings the news that his son is a prisoner of war), this story has promise of some durability.
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