Saturday, March 1, 2014

Pilot Review: Mind Games

Mind Games (Tuesdays at 10:00 on ABC)

Debuting in one of ABC's most troubled timeslots is Mind Games, one of their more pleasant dramas of the season. It's a relatively smart and energetic twist on the procedural genre with a strong cast and strong writing from Kyle Killen, who has developed something of a cult following after two well-received but poorly-rated shows (NBC's Awake and Fox's Lone Star). And despite the fact that Mind Games is enjoyable and much more accessible and widely appealing than his previous shows, it's likely to be a hat trick for Killen in the one-season-and-done club, simply because ABC doesn't know how to properly schedule and/or promote their new shows.

Continuing Killen's exploration of man's duality, Mind Games follows the exploits of two brothers. One, Clark (Steve Zahn), is a bipolar former university psychology professor recently fired for having an affair with a student; and the other, Ross (Christian Slater), is an ex-con who did time for fraud and is trying out his latest money-making scheme: using his brother's knowledge of human behavior to help clients. The case in the pilot involves a boy suffering from a debilitating heart disease who needs a complicated, experimental surgery which will not be approved by his insurance company. Clark devises a plan to implant thoughts in the company's decision-maker and convince him that he's the kind of good Samaritan who would help a dying boy. There's a bit of backstory for the brothers as well, including an appearance on the team by one of Clark's former students, Latrell (Cedric Sanders); Ross's ex-wife and Clark's good-luck charm, Claire (Wynn Everett, The Newsroom); a second behavioral scientist, Miles (Gregory Marcel); and an aspiring actress and gifted manipulator (Megalyn Echikunwoke, CSI: Miami).

The whole procedural concept of Mind Games isn't exactly original. True, it is not a police, lawyer, or doctor procedural, but it's also not entirely without similarities to other shows: Leverage, Perception, Suits, and Psych all have a small bit of representation here. And the actual case-of-the-week in the pilot is its weakest point. Killen isn't at his best writing the dime-a-dozen, throwaway stories required for each episode. Police procedurals can survive for years on these kinds of stories that merely function in the background to develop an idea or a character, but Killen's just better at writing a fully developed A-story without much of a B-story, when in most procedurals the B-story has to also grab the audience and affect the story and characters (this was clearly evident on Awake, which was infinitely more frustrating because the weak B-stories often overtook the fascinatingly complex A-story of Detective Britten's two worlds). But his dialogue is still crisp, witty, and singing with electricity, even more so than it ever has before. The moments of the pilot when Clark and the other scientists are explaining the method by which they will implant thoughts in the subconscious of their target (basically, it's Inception but with adrenaline instead of those crazy sedatives), which could easily be dull and flat because they are all scientific exposition, are exciting, fun and... well, educational. Killen boils down the science of it all to easily understandable concepts, which keeps the audience engaged and in the loop at the same time. The same can't always be said of technology or science-heavy procedurals, which often become boring or confusing when they over-explain (Intelligence, anyone?).

Aside from that, Killen is also an engaging writer of, as previously mentioned, duality. Lone Star was about a man leading a double life, and Awake was about a man living in two different worlds/consciousnesses. Mind Games is a bit more basic than Awake in that it explores the relationship between brothers, two people who have almost nothing and yet so much in common. It's really intriguing to watch the interactions of Zahn and Slater as they demonstrate this: on the surface, Clark is manic and wild while Ross is calm and collected. But beneath Clark's crazy theorizing and Ross's stone face is a connection that neither see. Both are master manipulators (though Clark's is based in knowledge of the human mind and Ross's is based in emotion), and both need each other more than they seem willing or able to recognize. On top of that, Killen is also beginning to explore the dual nature of a person with bipolar disorder, from Clark's brilliant highs to his crashing lows, sometimes each within a few moments of the other. The dynamic between the two is the script's highlight, and the chemistry between Zahn and Slater just heightens it even more.

Speaking of, Steven Zahn is giving a career-best performance here. He's mostly known for comedy, so it's surprising to see him in the role of an emotionally immature and nearly psychotic professor. But he makes it work with his energetic performance; he isn't afraid to explore the highs and lows of Clark's mind and actions. We feel his excitement too when Clark figures out how to win their case, and we feel his pain and grief over losing his lover. Slater is every bit his foil, evening out Zahn's intensity with a low-key performance of a man who doesn't wear his emotions on his sleeve as his brother does. But the chemistry between the two is what really makes the material work, especially Killen's rapid, witty dialogue.

In general, I think Mind Games had the potential to be something really good for ABC. Killen is a fantastic writer and thinker, the cast is full of talented and recognizable faces, and the concept is accessible but not overly simple. ABC tends to have a good deal of success with their lightly serialized procedurals (Castle, Grey's Anatomy), but, for some reason, this new crop of shows just hasn't caught on. Killer Women and Lucky 7 were both weaker offerings in an already-difficult timeslot, and Mind Games has suffered from a lack of promotion (the vast majority of ABC was in reruns in the weeks leading up to its debut due to the Olympics, plus ABC seems to be sinking most of its promotional efforts into the new Sunday night lineup) and a lack of confidence. Even the poster conveys ABC's "who cares" attitude. You can't even really tell what the title is from just glancing at it; anyone who didn't already know otherwise would probably think the show was called Edwards and Associates. And it's so frustrating, because Mind Games isn't a bad show. True, it's not the best new show of the year, or even the best new show on ABC, but it's far from terrible. It deserves better treatment, and it deserves a look from an audience, if only to save Kyle Killen from suffering through another early cancellation of a show that should have been treated with more respect and admiration.

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