Wednesday, May 13, 2009

TV review: Human drama enriches 'In Plain Sight'

Mary McCormick as Mary Shannon in In Plain Sight.


By John Thomason

Mary Shannon, the ball-busting U.S. marshal played by Mary McCormick on In Plain Sight, is a definitive post-House TV antihero – brilliant at her job but with a personal life in shambles.

She does contempt well, but the word love makes her puke. She can emasculate the most aggressive mobster with a penetrating glare but can’t open her heart to her ever-patient boyfriend – if she ever decides to even call him that.

Frankly, today’s television landscape is full of protagonists like Mary. Our heroes and heroines can no longer be perfect specimens of health, fountains of wisdom and bastions of morality, riding on proverbial white steeds to dispose of one-dimensional cretins. Like Dr. House’s limp (and the surliness and the Vicodin and all that other stuff), they all need to have flaws to make them human, and Mary’s Achilles’ heel is a heart that shrinks like a violet whenever anyone approaches it.

So the character of Mary is simply riding a wave, arriving on the TV landscape at the right place at the right time. And other parts of In Plain Sight are even more derivative.

Every episode begins with a dramatic scene involving characters we’ve never seen before, usually climaxing in at least one person’s death, a device borrowed from Six Feet Under. There’s also Mary’s voice-over narration, which charts a thematic course in the opening and poetically summarizes what we’ve learned at the end, an audience-friendly chestnut all too familiar to Desperate Housewives viewers.

But the show, which began its second season in April, is well deserving of the more than 5 million viewers who tune in each week. That’s no number to laugh at, especially given that the show airs on a basic cable channel (USA) at 10 p.m. on Sundays, a slot usually dominated by HBO.

The subject matter – the inner goings-on of the federal witness protection program – is inherently fascinating, and because the lead characters’ jobs are so diverse, it allows a range of genres to commingle. Most episodes are equal parts police procedural, chatty comedy, domestic drama and action-packed blockbuster (it should be noted that while the show’s level of violence never ceases to shock, death is never taken lightly or exploited for viewers’ pleasure).

In the first season, Mary and her detached, deadpan partner Marshall (Fred Weller) protected obstinate mobsters, philandering art dealers, gambling-addicted basketball stars, Russian pornographers and other mostly sordid types from even worse criminals so their witnesses could ultimately testify in court. The cases are all fascinating, but they’re not what drive the show, especially in Season Two. It’s watching Mary evolve alongside her much more present family that finds In Plain Sight reaching new levels of maturity.

In each of the four episodes so far, Mary’s unbreakable on-the-job persona has begun to exhibit hairline cracks, like the microscopic chinks on an otherwise flawless piece of Capodimonte porcelain. Apparently, even Mary is victim to post-traumatic stress disorder, developed after she killed a man (in self-defense and following a Houdini-worthy escape from a drug dealer’s basement) in the first season’s finale.

Furthermore, we know from Season One that her family is the source for much of the bitter, emotionally guarded way Mary lives her life. But her alcoholic mother Jinx (Lesley Ann Warren) and her wayward sister Brandi (Nichole Hiltz), employed solely for comic relief early on, have seen their roles increase in Season Two.

The former comes to her grips with her disease after a drunken assault with a police officer, while the latter has a tear-stained revelation – and meets a potential new love interest – while attending an AA meeting in her mother’s place. It’s arguably the strongest, most emotional sequence in the show’s short history.

The domestic trials of Mary and her family are so moving this season that the cases themselves are ultimately subordinate. The witness protection setting will never stop being cool, but this season, the creators of In Plain Sight seem to be asking us to come for the unique, action-packed premise and stay for the humanity.

John Thomason is a freelance writer based in South Florida.

In Plain Sight airs at 10 p.m. Sundays on the USA Network.

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