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True story: Fox's Lie to Me looks like a keeper

Tim Roth might be a bit afraid you won't like him in Lie to Me.

Premiering: Wednesday, Jan. 21, at 8 p.m. (central) on Fox
Starring: Tim Roth, Kelli Williams, Monica Raymund, Brendan Hines
Produced by: Brian Grazer, Samuel Baum, David Nevins, Steven Maeda

But what if they've only got gas?

Fox's new Lie to Me is solidly entertaining while at the same time more than a wee bit preposterous. Its crime-solving centerpiece, veteran big-screen villain Tim Roth as "deception expert" Dr. Cal Lightman, takes everyone and everything at face value. A telltale lip-tightening in one of the corner pockets signifies contempt. And deceit can be as simple as an involuntary shoulder shrug.

Wednesday's premiere episode is likely to achieve liftoff in a plum time slot following American Idol. It begins niftily with Lightman teaching a class on how body language always tells all. First he nails a church bomber in a videotaped interrogation. Side-by-side pictures of Simon Cowell and George W. Bush are then used to illustrate contempt.

"These expressions are universal," Lightman assures his students and viewers at home. "The emotion looks the same whether you're a suburban housewife or a suicide bomber. The truth is written on all our faces."

CBS already is catching crooks the not-so-old fashioned way in Numb3rs, Eleventh Hour and the season's biggest new hit, The Mentalist. Fox's Bones also trades on this turf. "Procedural" crime series have proliferated to the point where you've gotta have a gimmick to make a new sale. Elementary fistfights and car chases have become rarer than a commercial break that plays at the same volume as the program it interrupts. Wheels still turn, but mostly in craniums.

Lie to Me cracks two cases for starters. A 16-year-old boy has been jailed in the murder of his comely female school teacher. Were his actions premeditated, or did he do it at all? Also, a veteran congressman set to become chairman of the House Ethics Committee is accused of frequenting a pay-for-play sex club. But maybe there's more to this than meets the eye -- or the eyebrow.

Lightman of course can be a bit eccentric and occasionally brusque. The laws of latter day prime-time TV dictate that he have an attractive female partner to keep him in line. She's Dr. Gillian Foster (Kelli Williams), who has both a sweet tooth and a lippy lip.

"You think I'm naive just because I don't share your twisted view of the world," Foster tells Lightman, who's undeterred.

Other members of the team are lead researcher Eli Loker (Brendan Hines), who has a little 'tude to him, and new recruit Ria Torres (Monica Raymund), plucked from an airport security post because she tested off the charts as a human lie detector.

Roth retains his English accent for his first outing as a small-screen leading man. He nicely underplays Lightman while also pumping plenty of life into him.

The character's deductive abilities are drawn from the real-life "scientific discoveries" of Dr. Paul Edkman, who's a consultant on the series. But all involved would be lying if they claimed not to be stretching more than a little.

Whatever the liberties taken, Lie to Me is a brisk, easily digested whodunit that looks like a long-distance runner. Prime-time already is teeming with crime-solving teams, but another pretty good one won't hurt.