Friday, June 27, 2008

I Made the Mistake of Underestimating “In Plain Sight”

[NOTE: The following article will also appear as my regular television column for WILDsound.]

When the USA Network premiered “In Plain Sight” (Sundays at 10 p.m. Eastern) last month, I thought to myself, “Just what we need: Another police procedural starring a film actress playing a difficult cop.” After all, the networks are littered with one-hour programs about crime solvers, and TNT has seemingly started an Actress Over 40 Career Reclamation Project, giving homes to Kyra Sedgwick (“The Closer”) and Holly Hunter (“Saving Grace”) as law enforcement professionals with problematic personal lives. (Both shows return with new seasons on July 14.)

I passed on watching the debut of “In Plain Sight” because the ads for it made it feel like a knock-off version of its TNT forerunners. After all, while Holly Hunter has won an Oscar and Kyra Sedgwick has received a Golden Globe nomination for playing Julia Roberts’s sister, Mary McCormack’s most memorable film role was playing Howard Stern’s wife in “Private Parts” (unless you think her turn opposite David Spade in “Dickie Roberts: Former Child Star” was her standout moment). Okay, she was in “Deep Impact” and “For Your Consideration,” and she played Russell Crowe’s wife in “Mystery Alaska,” but, certainly, McCormack’s movie career doesn’t hold up to Sedgwick’s or Hunter’s. And nothing about “In Plain Sight” looked fresh or interesting. The ads, to me, felt like it was a cheap effort to draft on the success of other shows.

But then a funny thing happened: “In Plain Sight” got some good reviews, and in a summer overrun with game shows and reality programs, it actually started generating some of that amorphous-but-oh-so-important buzz. I remained cynical. Another police procedural? And one centering on female-male, polar-opposite partners? I wasn’t buying it. I had to see for myself, so I tuned in on Sunday.

Turns out, I was wrong. Really wrong. Something that became especially apparent when I went back and watched the pilot online. “In Plain Sight” blows “The Closer” and “Saving Grace” off the map.

McCormack stars as Mary, a U.S. Marshal in New Mexico charged with protecting and transporting members of the federal witness protection program. She lives with her boozing, deadbeat mother, Jinx (the names on this show are so on-the-nose you’ll wince, by the way), played by the reliably ditzy Lesley Ann Warren. Jinx is prone to statements like, “Relationships end. Jewelry is forever.” In the premiere, the mother and daughter are joined by Mary’s sister, Brandi (Nichole Hiltz), who takes after her mother, but has developed a nose for crime, as well. Due to the nature of Mary’s work, her mother and sister don’t know what she really does for a living.

On the job, Mary’s partner is a U.S. Marshal named Marshall (see, I told you), played by New York stage veteran Fred Weller. Mary and Marshall are constantly bickering, like an emotional odd couple: she’s a mess, he’s always in control. But where this relationship could go the route of mind-numbing cliché in the hands of less skillful writers, it achieves so much more, mostly due to the palpable chemistry between McCormack and Weller. They manage to convey the affection these two people have for each other without ever indicating it in obvious words or mannerisms. The subtlety of their performances makes this a television pairing worth following.

In Sunday’s episode, Mary opens a letter addressed to Marshall and finds that he is thinking of leaving government work. After he is wounded on duty, she asks him why he was considering changing careers, and he explains that being her friend is like training an exotic animal, in that he is constantly either protecting her form the world, or protecting the world from her. It was a touching moment, but it was more than that, revealing a complexity to the relationship that wasn’t visible in the regular give-and-take between the partners.

I also liked how the writing, while sometimes embracing classic television clichés, also did a great job of playing off of audience expectations for effect. In the premiere, Mary holds her cell phone out the window of her car so she can claim not to hear her boss and thus disobey his order. It was a moment we’ve seen a million times before, the renegade cop flouting authority to do the right thing. But just when you think you have the show pegged, the rug is pulled out from under your feet.

Minutes after the cell phone gag, Brandi, blonde and pretty, is left by Mary’s on-again-off-again boyfriend in his car in front of a youth center. Two criminal-looking kids make some leering comments to her, and we think we know where this is going, with the little blonde white girl cowering in fear. Turns out, Brandi is not so innocent. As Mary is explaining to her boyfriend on the phone that Brandi likes to steal cars, we hear the engine turn over and the car pull away, leaving Mary’s boyfriend stranded at the center.

Similarly, Mary and Marshall take a Ukrainian witness to her new apartment in town, and she breaks down upon the realization that she is not only stuck in this small town far from New York, but she will never see her family and friends again. Mary consoles her, and we think we have a read on the situation, that this poor bookkeeper has the purest of intentions. When she finally pulls herself together, though, Mary asks her if she needs something special from the grocery store, and the witness responds by asking when she gets the “new breasts” she was promised by the government. Even the brave witness has an agenda.

“In Plain Sight” does have a kind of schizophrenic quality with its tone, bouncing from the serious to the light-hearted and back, with no segue to let the audience get comfortable. One second Mary and Marshall are bantering and needling each other about something unimportant, next thing you know it, a New York Mafioso hit man in the witness protection program is throwing corpses around a morgue in a grief-driven rage as he looks for his son’s body. The balancing of tones isn’t quite there yet, but it’s not enough to get in the way of the entertainment.

And “In Plain Sight” is entertaining. Funny at times, the program is, at heart, a hardcore police crime drama, with shootouts, chases and everything you would expect from cops and bad guys. Sunday’s episode featured the great Dave Foley as an acid-tongued, asthmatic, diabetic, whiny front man for a female assassin named Lola, who, after being captured, agrees to deliver his boss to the law. Mary and Marshall have to transport him, and what ensues captures everything that works about this show.

One moment, Foley is trading insults with Mary, telling her she is touching him inappropriately, to which she sarcastically shoots back that she is into “pasty accountant types.” But soon after they hit the road, their vehicle is attacked, leading to a shootout, Marshall being wounded, and the agents and their charge holing up in an abandoned building in the middle of the desert. The comedy and thriller aspects both work. (And bonus points to any show that has its lead character sing the words to the Kinks classic “Lola” as a way of figuring out a key clue in solving a crime mystery.)

The only thing that doesn’t work for me is the balance of Mary’s family and work lives. In Sunday’s episode, we cut back and forth between Mary working on her case with Marshall and Jinx trying to sort out her money problems with Brandi, mostly by sitting in a bar and getting drunk. Brandi, Jinx and Mary don’t share any screen time until the last shot of the episode. The problem is that nothing bound the two stories together until that last moment. It was jarring to go back and forth between two plots with such different feels. It felt as is the two arcs were being jammed together, regardless of whether they fit properly or not.

But that’s a small nit to pick. “In Plain Sight” is a funny, exciting police program with strong writing and a stellar cast. McCormack and Weller especially do a great job humanizing their characters, giving them a depth that you might not have guessed was there from seeing a commercial for the show.

Don’t make the same mistake I did and let this little gem slip away.