January 15, 2009 / 7:45 PM / in 11 years

TV's timely new superheroes detect lies, deceit

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - A new army of heroes is emerging on U.S. television — not with superhuman strength or the power to fly but the ability to detect lies and deceit in an era of public distrust of civic leaders and institutions.

For years, actor Hugh Laurie’s cantankerous but brilliant TV doctor Gregory House has lived by the mantra “Everybody lies.”

Now a crop of dramas is showcasing mind-readers, investigators with acute observational powers, psychics and even game show contestants hooked up to lie detectors.

“It is a perennial trend on television where you have the fantasy that someone with eccentric talent will be able to fix a system that is horribly wrong,” said Johanna Blakley, a popular culture expert at the University of Southern California’s Norman Lear Center.

Declining faith in U.S. institutions stretches back to the Watergate scandal of the 1970s and beyond.

But public trust has been heavily shaken in recent months by the crash of venerable banks, allegations of corruption in the Illinois governor’s office and the arrest of accused swindler Bernard Madoff in one of the biggest financial frauds in U.S. history.

American television has responded with “The Mentalist,” which boasts the tag line “master manipulator of thought and behavior.” The CBS show, starring Australian actor Simon Baker, is now the nation’s most-watched new drama and one of the top-10 prime-time shows.

Coming up is “Lie to Me,” a series featuring a body-language expert who detects deception involving a wealthy billionaire, a military cover-up and the safety of a collapsed building.

The show even uses clips of real people including former President Bill Clinton, actor Hugh Grant and “American Idol” judge Simon Cowell to demonstrate the lead character’s expertise in reading facial and body micro expressions.

“There is a fair amount of lying around if you read the newspapers. There are as many lies as there are people,” said Samuel Baum, creator of “Lie to Me,” which premieres on the Fox network on Jan 21.

“I feel the timing of the show is right,” he said, adding that the American people are more aware of the amount of lies “they are being sold on a daily basis.”

The new dramas follow “The Moment of Truth” — a game show that aired last summer in which contestants were exposed as adulterers, cheats and liars as family members and the nation looked on — and the comedy-drama “Psych” on the USA cable channel.

Popular-culture expert Robert Thompson said it was no coincidence that television was coming up with such themes at this time.

“The TV industry is all about trying to read the tea-leaves of what is in the American soul,” said Thompson, director of the Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University.

“If we feel the truth is completely veiled in real life, it is cool to experiment with the idea of accessing that truth in fiction.”

Editing by Dean Goodman and Vicki Allen

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