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Lie to Me's premise is timely and depressing: everybody lies. (The pilot face-analyzes Dick Cheney, Eliot Spitzer and various notorious celebs to drive home the point; expect a Bernard Madoff reference any episode now.) "The average person tells three lies in 10 minutes of conversation," Lightman crisply informs us, and while Lie to Me balances him with a partner (Kelli Williams) so earnest and sweet that she eats pudding for breakfast, his jaded worldview is borne out. The characters lie for reasons good, evil and poignant; they lie in guilt and in innocence--but in the end, they lie and they lie. Lie to Me's pilot is brisk anthropological fun. But you may find yourself staring at your loved ones' faces a little too closely afterward.
Working the other side of the deception business is Trust Me (TNT, Mondays, 10 p.m. E.T., debuting Jan. 26), set in the world of men and advertising. It has the misfortune of sharing this subject with the masterpiece Mad Men, though its period (the present) and tone (comedy-drama) are far different. Mason (Eric McCormack) and Conner (Tom Cavanagh) are partners at a Chicago agency, getting by on caffeine and zingers. It's innocuous fun--Cavanagh (Ed) exhales charm as effortlessly as most mammals do carbon dioxide--but predictable, down to the pilot's last-minute-inspiration-in-the-pitch-meeting climax.
And strangely, the show--conceived before autumn's economic free fall--seems further from today than Don Draper's 1962: the office is flush, everyone has iPhones and drinks Starbucks, and no one is getting downsized. Trust Me may have to adjust its depiction of business--if the viewers don't lay it off first.
Showtime's United States of Tara (Sundays, 10 p.m. E.T.), on the other hand, is not something you've seen before: a comedy with four protagonists all sharing the same body. The title character (Toni Collette) is a Kansas woman with two kids and three alternative personalities, or "alters": T, a trash-mouthed 16-year-old; Buck, a gun-loving redneck (and a dude); and Alice, a '50s-style prim housewife. Which makes for complications, as when hubby Max (John Corbett) must spurn T's advances because "Tara wouldn't like it."
Created by Diablo Cody (Juno), Tara is funny, fascinating and frustrating. As in Cody's pregnancy comedy, too many characters speak the same pop-culturese, and each persona is a flat-out cliché. But family members' interaction with the alters is believable: you get a real sense that they're accustomed to Tara's condition, having developed different strategies for dealing with each alter. The problem is that the show is too determined to play up its oddity, down to having Tara change costume with every transformation, which actually detracts from Collette's amazing character shifts--she adopts a new personality just by changing expression--and makes Tara seem like a Tracey Ullman special. Tara has the potential to be a great comedy about identity, but it needs to be less self-conscious about its strangeness.