USA Network’s In Plain Sight is a formula show that’s intended to be more than a formula show.
Just as genre movies work best when they don’t try to be superior to the genre, formula TV programs are best when they bring something new to the formula but don’t try to pretend they’re better than their neighbors.
‘Transcending the genre’ is something snooty critics like, but it doesn’t make for either entertainment or art.
The USA Network has had great success with this, well, formula, in recent years. Ever since Monk hit it big six years ago, USA has introduced new programs finding new angles on a consistent formula:
unusual central character + interesting occupation + pleasant setting + crime + action and adventure + comedy = socko TV entertainment.
That has brought a series of very solid programs including Monk, Psych, Burn Notice, and the revived Law and Order: Criminal Intent.
Unfortunately, after a while, programmers and producers get bored with the formula and try to geek it up a notch or two. Typically, it doesn’t work.
Case in point: the new USA show In Plain Sight (Sundays at 10 p.m. EDT). It’s got a quirky lead character with an unusual occupation—federal marshall Mary Shannon, who works in the government’s Witness Protection Program. It’s got an appealing, unusual setting—Albuquerque, New Mexico. It’s got crimes. It’s got action and adventure. It’s got comedy, especially from Leslie Ann Warren (hilarious as Mary’s mother, Jinx Shannon) and Nichole Hiltz (also funny as Mary’s black-ewe sister, Brandi). It even has a highly likeable and respectable sidekick character, Mary’s partner, Marshall Marshall Mann (Fred Weller).
Unfortunately, the producers figured that all this good stuff just wasn’t enough, and decided that the central character should be thorouglhy dissatisfied with ordinary, bourgeois life and values and thus have a horrible chip on her shoulder and be angry nearly all the time.
Mary’s biggest irritatant is the irresponsibility of her mother and sister, both of whom live with her. In terms of the values the show presents, this is a very good angle indeed. Her mother’s and sister’s selfishness make Mary’s life much more difficult than it should be, and showing the consequences of their narcissism is a highly laudable choice on the producers’ part.
Moreover, Mary’s perturbed reactions are both plausible and realistic. That’s the way most of us react when confronted with such behavior, and it reinforces the show’s criticism of her family’s actions.
Unfortunately, that perturbation is also Mary’s reaction to much of what happens while she’s on the job. As played by the well-respected actress Mary McCormack (ER, The West Wing), the character is too much of a one-note Mary. Yes, she does get to show some nice, tender moments, as when she reaches out to a troubled young boy in episode two, "Hoosier Daddy," but mostly she appears to have a very bad case of chronic acid reflux.
In addition, Mary is involved in a sex-only relationship with boytoyfriend Rafael Ramirez (Cristian de la Fuente), which is imitative of Saving Grace but without the deeper meanings of that excellent program. It also means we get to see Mary being dissatisfied about this as well.
So what we get is a central character who’s nearly always annoyed by (1) her family, (2) her job, and (3) her love life. Not exactly fun for us.
In fact, Mary’s entire character seems like a less pathological and spiritually aware version of Holly Hunter’s Grace Hanadarko in Saving Grace. McCormack’s performance doesn’t fit well in this program, and if her grouchiness were toned down, she might not be in the running for an Emmy Award (which will probably elude her anyway), but her character wouldn’t be such a misery for the audience.
It’s a pity, because, as noted, In Plain Sight has much going for it. Fortunately, USA Network has a solid record of making adjustments to improve its programs, as when it made the mysteries in Psych stronger and more prominent and slightly reduced the zany hijinks of the two lead characters.
Let’s hope they do the same kind of good work with In Plain Sight, removing the Saving Grace stuff and hewing closer to the network’s highly successful formula. It could prove to be a very appealing show.