Friday, January 30, 2009

"Trust Me" Is Not Bad, But It's No "Mad Men"

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

A creative director stands in a boardroom filled with nervous colleagues and skeptical clients, and using the information he's picked up about himself and the world over the last 45 minutes of television time, he improvises a brilliant, edgy, smart campaign that blows away the client and saves the day. Am I talking about Don Draper of "Mad Men"? Well, I guess I could be, but I am actually describing one of the last scenes in the debut episode of the one-hour dramedy "Trust Me" (TNT, Mondays at 10 p.m. Eastern).

"Trust Me" pairs Eric McCormack (Will on "Will & Grace") and Tom Cavanagh (Ed on "Ed") as Mason McGuire and Conner (he only has one name, like Madonna), a creative team at a swanky looking Chicago advertising agency (Mason is the artist, Conner is the writer). As the show opens, we are immediately clued into the roles each plays in the relationship: They are sitting poolside in L.A., hung over, having completed their work on a photo shoot, when a call comes in to their cells from the office in Chicago. Conner doesn't want to answer it and proceeds to jump into the pool and swim over to talk to a beautiful woman, while Mason, unable to shirk his duties, picks up the phone. Voila! Mason is the responsible one, Conner is the immature and independent one.

Not that they had to really tell us anything, since both actors have made their careers playing these particular types of characters. Mason is like a straight version of Will, only with five-o'clock shadow, and Conner fits nicely into Cavanagh's line of goofy, likable man-children, from Ed to J.D.'s brother on "Scrubs" to his lead in the short-lived "Love Monkey."

Before you can say "premiere episode plot twist," Mason and Conner have to fly back to Chicago to work on what they think is a Super Bowl ad, but which is really an effort to keep an existing client, Arc Mobile, which is unhappy with the campaign proposed by Mason's boss, the mercurial, erratic, obnoxious and talented creative director, Guy (played by Jason O'Mara, who is light years here from his time-traveling detective on "Life on Mars"). Guy conveniently drops dead shortly after giving a speech on the role of creatives in advertising (it's not so sad, he is such an unlikable jerk, at his memorial service, nobody can bring themselves to say anything really nice about him). The group creative director, Tony Mink (a low-key Griffin Dunne), then offers Mason the creative director job. Mason wants Conner to be promoted too, but Tony explains that Mason is all about advertising, while Conner is not. And thus the dynamic for "Trust Me" is set up.

I really don't have a single bad thing to say about "Trust Me." The cast is very good. Monica Potter does nice work as the hot-shot, neurotic and abrasive veteran copywriter, Sarah, who is new to the agency. Geoffrey Arend and Mike Damus are entertaining as Hector and Tom, the young, up-and-coming artist-writer team (upon Sarah's arrival, they steal her Clio Award). Dunne does a nice job playing the boss as couching his steel fist in a tweedy glove, a nice change from the man's man approach usually taken for a character like this one (Miles Drentell of "thirtysomething" would think that Tony is a mess). And McCormack and Cavanagh are, well, McCormack and Cavanagh. If you like what they've always done (I fall into that category), you'll like them here, and if you don't, then you won't.

The writing is solid. There were some smart lines (O'Mara bellows, "clients are idiots," to end his big speech, which was funny and observant), and the plot moves along briskly. The show looks great. It feels like a big Hollywood romantic comedy, all bright and shiny with luxurious sets and flashy visual gimmicks, like the use of split screens and on-screen supers (like "It's her first day" as Sarah enters the agency). And since the creators, Hunt Baldwin and John Coveny ("The Closer"), actually worked for many years in major Chicago ad agencies, the world of the show feels real, at least to me, who, admittedly, knows little about the industry.

If I don't sound so excited, it's because while there might not be anything bad to say about "Trust Me," there is also nearly nothing particularly great about it, either. It's not the show's fault that "Mad Men" has aired two near-perfect seasons and is amongst the handful of best programs on the air. (I've seen in interviews that "Trust Me" was in development long before "Mad Men" hit the air.) And, in fairness, "Trust Me" and "Mad Men" have little in common, beyond both being about advertising and the creative director saving the day with an ad lib thing I talked about earlier (although that method is de rigeur for Draper, it is a first-time occurrence for the rookie art-director-turned-creative-director Mason). The tones of the programs are completely different, as "Mad Men" is deliberate, dark and moody, releasing even the most basic pieces of information in measured doses, while "Trust Me" is less challenging, faster-moving, lighter and chattier.

But fair or not fair, "Mad Men" exists, and "Trust Me" just feels unoriginal, not just in light of "Mad Men," but also considering "thirtysomething." In fact, Mason and Conner's relationship is disturbingly close to that of Ken Olin's Michael and Timothy Busfield's Elliott in the 1980s critical favorite. Like Michael, Mason is the responsible one of the pairing. Like Michael, Mason is promoted without his partner. And like Michael, Mason is told by his partner that he is the less talented of the two, and like Elliott to Michael, Conner tells Mason that others had suggested he end the partnership, but he refused. (The only swap is that Mason is the artist, whereby Michael was the writer, but it's a distinction without any real difference to the show.) Granted, the Michael promotion happens two or three seasons into the run of "thirtysomething," but the dynamic that drove those later seasons seems to be the same one that is pushing "Trust Me" forward: How will the new roles affect the long-time partners, both in their own lives and in their interactions with each other?

Pilots are notoriously bad test cases to see what a show will actually feel like. After all, the debut has to introduce you to all of the characters, locations, relationships and key plot points, all in a short period of time, and all while, like any other episode, telling a good story and being entertaining. (Ironically, McCormack's breakthrough show, "Will & Grace," is one of the best pilots I've ever seen in managing to hit all of these bases successfully.) So I don't think it is fair to judge "Trust Me" until it's had its chance to air some regular installments (even though I did just that in this review ... oops!). But my sense is that "Trust Me" will always have to fight to escape the shadows of its predecessors, even if it will likely be very different and, not coincidentally, able to draw a bigger audience.

Despite the unflattering comparisons, the debut of "Trust Me" was entertaining. I'll keep watching. But as far as supremacy in the ad agency world goes, Don Draper and Sterling Cooper have nothing to worry about.