Review: In ABC's 'Mind Games,' Steve Zahn and Christian Slater want to change your thoughts
"Mind Games," the new ABC drama that debuts tomorrow night at 10, opens with a scene where brilliant psychologist Clark (Steve Zahn) tells his brother Ross (Christian Slater) that when they pitch their new business idea to an investor, they should lead with their weaknesses.
"Studies show you are judged to be more likable when you begin by admitting your faults rather than waiting," Clark explains.
I don't know if "Mind Games" creator Kyle Killen intended this scene as a meta comment on the strange but often brilliant arc of his career. But the pilot episode is peppered with comments about why the brother's idea — and, thus, the premise of the show — shouldn't work, as well as references to things that have brought down past Killen series like "Lone Star" and "Awake." (At one point, Ross even asks an underling, "How do you feel about moral ambiguity?") I almost wonder if Killen's series pitch to ABC also began with a confession of weaknesses, which might have gone something like this:
"Hi, I make shows that critics love and nobody watches, that have concepts that are hard to explain in a sentence (or sometimes even two). My first series had one of the shortest runs ever, and my second probably would have gone away almost as quickly if NBC literally had anything to replace it with. I really love stories about duality, whether a con man with two identities (and two wives), a cop toggling between two realities or, here, two damaged brothers who together just barely add up to one functioning human being. I'm really talented but have no commercial track record whatsoever. So... who's in?"
How does Killen do this? How does he convince one network boss after another to make these shows? He's obviously very bright and creative, and you can see how his pitches might be exciting in the room, and how his previous pilots — the first two were perhaps the best to be picked up by any network in their respective development cycles — were so expertly crafted that someone thought they just had to put them on the air.
Or maybe all this time he's been deploying some of the psychological tactics used by the brothers in "Mind Games."
This is once again an odd concept, one where the brothers acknowledge it's untested, and where even their clients seem puzzled about the service they provide. Clark tries to boil it down to a sentence — "Simply put, we change people's minds without them knowing we do it." — and I suppose Killen could have pitched it as "'Inception' where everyone's awake and there's no science fiction."
Clark is a genius with an endless bag of psychological tricks, like making a physically unimpressive man seem more imposing by putting his feet up on a desk, or convincing a selfish person that he's actually heroic by pumping up his adrenaline until his brain becomes "like wet cement" where any new message can be written permanently. And when Clark's schemes fail, the firm can turn to Ross, an ex-con who ran a series of boiler rooms before teaming up with his brother. Together, they tackle big problems like trying to get an insurance company to pay for a sick boy's experimental surgery, as well as less imposing ones like getting a father and son to reconcile or helping a woman get a better deal on a new car.
This is Killen very clearly trying to curb his box office poison instincts and do something more commercial. This feels like an ABC show — down to the tootling music anytime there's a lighter comic moment (and each "Mind Games" episode has more of those than the previous shows did combined) — in a way that "Lone Star" and "Awake" never seemed at home on their respective networks. And though there are some character arcs involving Clark's ex-girlfriend and Ross's ex-wife, for the most part it's a straightforward, easy-to-digest procedural: a client comes to the office with a problem, Clark and Ross try various ideas to help them, they pull it off, roll credits.
The problem is that trying to make a goofy procedural on this subject clashes significantly with some core pieces of it. First, Clark is bipolar, and though there are a few dark moments in the pilot that address the toll this takes on Clark and everyone who cares about him, by a later episode (ABC made the first and fifth available to critics), he's just a wacky, unpredictable guy who causes his brother's eyebrows to furrow. Zahn's gifted and versatile enough that he can easily play either version of the character — in Clark's lighter moments, he's not too far removed from DJ Davis on "Tremé" — but he can't really reconcile the two within the same show.
Second, even though Clark repeatedly explains that what he does is not mind control, it's still fairly creepy and ethically questionable. "Mind Games" doesn't want you to think about the moral implications of the brothers' work because they're doing it to help out the underdog, but they're really hard to ignore.
The version of the show that doesn't flinch from who its characters are and what they do would probably be beloved by a small number of viewers, but would fail on ABC only slightly more slowly than "Lone Star" did on FOX. But this compromise version emphasizes some of Killen's own weaknesses — he's not a procedural guy, as the cases on "Awake" tended to demonstrate — even as I can't imagine it doing significantly better than the purer version would. We're in the end times for the broadcast networks, and if something isn't built to be a big, broad hit — which this version of "Mind Games" isn't — then you're arguably better off with a show that inspires passion in a few ("Mind Games" by Killen at his Killen-iest) rather than one that will inspire ambivalence in many ("Mind Games" as it actually is).
It feels sadly appropriate that Killen is teaming up with Slater, as they're working their way across the networks with these short-lived shows. (Both have thus far avoided CBS, which has no use for Killen's brainteaser shenanigans.) Killen has said he wants to work in network because he remembers the days in the '80s and '90s when you could do complicated and thought provoking dramas on a broadcaster and be successful. (Also: the money is much better than it usually is on cable, especially if you stay on the air for a few seasons.) But unless "Mind Games" improbably hits in a timeslot that already claimed "Lucky 7" and "Killer Women" this season, it may be time for him to give FX's John Landgraf or Showtime's David Nevins a call to say, "Hey, I think we may be simpatico."
And in that conversation, he could absolutely get away with leading with his weaknesses, because on cable, many of those weaknesses suddenly become strengths.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com