Sunday, March 9, 2014

Mind Games: Third Time's Not the Charm for Kyle Killen

The cast of Mind Games, now airing on ABC

Kyle Killen's career as a television writer and creator is odd, even by Hollywood standards. In 2009, despite almost unanimous acclaim by the critics, his first creation Lone Star was famously cancelled by FOX after its second episode. He moved to NBC and put out Awake in 2012. That time around he got to air the show's full 13-episode first season, but the network officially pulled the plug long before its finale earning the show first place on my brilliant-but-cancelled list for that year. I wrote at length about Awake at the time, but even two years later it still continues to represent for me one of the best examples of what can be done within the American network television model. A fantasy crime procedural, Awake was ambitious, innovative, smartly written, subtly acted, and always deeply human all within the frame of what was still a traditional format.  It was a show that did everything right, except of course finding an audience. Two years later, Killen is back with Mind Games, this time on ABC. Mind Games is Killen's third series and third network, and I had medium-sized hopes for the series. Unfortunately, it looks like the third time is very much not the charm for Killen. 

Mind Games premiered on February 25th, and its second episode aired this past Tuesday. This time around, Killen has picked a more commercially viable premise and brought along two recognizable TV stars: Steve Zahn, riding high from four seasons of Treme, and Christian Slater, whose TV credits are somewhat more checkered. (Slater's last regular series was FOX's Breaking In, which has a strong first season and an uneven second season before it was itself cancelled.) Zahn and Slater play Clark and Ross Edwards, two brothers who set up a company that uses subtle (and not so subtle) psychological techniques to solve people's problems. Clark is a recently disgraced academic with bipolar disorder and Ross is an ex-con, just released from a two year prison stint for securities fraud.  Harnessing decades of laboratory research into human behaviour, they pool what little money they have, hire some other ivory tower exiles, and hang a shingle outside a fancy high-rise office in downtown Chicago claiming they can make things go your way for a small fee: "Simply put, we change people's minds without them knowing we do it." You know, like Inception but more confusing.

Although I turned on the pilot without knowing anything about the series beyond Killen's association, it is actually the kind of show that I enjoy, although less often write about: Robin Hood-esque, problem-solving, wish fulfilment stories about a person or team who have the skills, resources, time, and the moral flexibility to take matters into their own hands and "get 'er done" for the little guy. The scams are often far-fetched, the stories are high intensity, and the characters are over-the-top. Sometimes they're lawyers (Franklin & Bash), former spies (Burn Notice, the early seasons especially), con artists (White Collar or BBC's Hustle) or law enforcement operating in the shadows (By Any Means, Tony Jordan's follow-up series to Hustle). But fun is always the watchword, and a light touch is key to the fantasy element that more often than not lets me put any lingering moral discomfort on standby, and just enjoy. 

Zahn, Christian Slater, and Jaime Ray Newman in Mind Games
Mind Games is certainly trying in part to be that kind of series, but unfortunately it doesn't come together.  Slater does okay with the material he's given. I don't always enjoy his work I can rarely get past the  "Hey, it's Christian Slater" stage but he was great in Breaking In, perhaps precisely because he played an exaggerated version of his established persona: a sardonic all-knowing ├╝ber-cool boss with expensive toys. He even got away with a "Greetings and Salutations" at one point. (As an aside, that series' second season stumbled precisely by futzing with Slater's role, following that "fix what ain't broken" model mainstream television sometime applies when it tries to build ratings.) But here Slater's character is the source of the Mind Games' fatal moral confusion, which wants him to be both the sane leader of a team of eccentric geniuses and the show's resident villain.

The pilot, for example, wants to imply that there's a right way and a wrong way to manipulate people to your own ends. Bizarrely, the 'wrong' way is when they know you're doing it (that's called extortion), and the 'right' way is when your victims have no idea you are doing it which seems either exactly backwards or basically a wash, morally speaking.

In the first episode, Ross introduces his straight-ahead public shaming scheme with "How do you feel about moral ambiguity?", as if they hadn't, just a few minutes earlier, orchestrated a public assault on an essentially guiltless person premised on an untested scientific theory. The show the characters and the story wants us to believe that what Ross does is wrong, and even Ross seems to know this and is trying to change but somehow, perhaps because our team is trying to "help the helpless", we're suppose to give them a pass, while still somehow judging Ross for entirely comparable actions. The series seems of two minds on so many things. Duality of course is Killen's thing exploring the theme in both of his famously failed shows, Lone Star and Awake here it seems both unsubtle and unintentional. There is far too much uncontrollable in Mind Games. They are manipulating people, and yet somehow they don't seem to know they are con artists. That bit of blindness is the source of a level of misgiving that I couldn't shake.

When telling stories in a world of moral greyness, there are two broad approaches you can take: either embrace that moral ambiguity (e.g. Hustle) or let it emerge more or less organically over time, and make that a substantial part of the story (e.g. Dollhouse). What made Hustle (a London-based series about a team of veteran grifters working long cons against villainous marks) work was that because the team of con artists operated outside the law and conventional morality, the show always needed to be rather explicit about the moral standards and principles the characters operated under. Sure, it was clear that they were after the money, but they only stole from those who deserved to loss it or acquired it themselves by means that our heroes found problematic. Hustle took the old maxim that 'You can't cheat an honest man' as gospel, and operated in a universe in which it was always true. We trusted them because they trusted each other. That very principle is what allows us to take vicarious pleasure in their Ocean's 11-style victories. Joss Whedon's short-lived Dollhouse took the other route. In its first season, it begged us to accept its morally and dramatically problematic premise (with a main character who was literally rebooted at the end of every episode), and slowly took us to the point where the series deconstructed itself rather explosively, both internally and externally. We buy into its amoral universe and later become aware, at the same pace as the characters themselves, that the centre can't hold. Mind Games unfortunately takes neither route, and the result is both alienating and confusing for the viewers. 

Steve Zahn as Dr. Clark Edwards on Mind Games
Perhaps Mind Games is a victim of Killen's ambitions. A series with this format could pose some fascinating ethical questions about the prevalent use of psychological techniques in our contemporary, post-Blink era. Had he taken the first route, he could have had his characters take up their moral mid-ground with self-consciousness and even humility. Though, considering his skills as a writer, with a little narrative patience, Mind Games would have been better taking on the second option. Taking a cue from Whedon's playbook and keeping Ross' cards a little closer to his chest for a few more episodes, the show could have committed to a seemingly light touch and slowly introduced Ross' dastardly machinations over time. But here it all comes too fast and too cleanly, with both of the initial episodes ending on ominous down notes that beat a single drum: Ross is a manipulative liar and Clark is a naive innocent. With Clark's mental health being such a central theme, the result is that these first episodes lay down a series of landlines which we have to work to forget in order to relax enough to root for the team. And speaking for myself, I couldn't do it. There's little fun in waiting for the other shoe to drop. 

There was also another promising feature of Mind Games: the characterization of Clark's bipolar disorder is ripe for potential. TV has recently begun to take mental illness more seriously, and put sufferers mild and extreme in starring rather than supporting roles. Outside of Homeland's decidedly melodramatic portrayal,  bipolar disorder isn't as common as, say, obsessive compulsive disorder has been (see: The Big Bang Theory, Girls, Monk). But from these first two episodes, it is already beginning to feel like a missed opportunity. So far, Clark has only manifested manic symptoms, consisting mainly of almost literally bouncing off the walls, bouts of social anxiety, and inappropriate outbursts. His down cycles have been referenced, but remain still unmanifested (though all indications are that circumstances already in play will conspire to knock him down soon enough). Evidence of the nature and impact of those down swings would have significantly offset how off-putting Clark's behaviour feels. The result however is that currently his illness comes off merely as high energy quirkiness with few indications of the seriousness or reality of the disorder, leaving viewers with no characters to sympathise with. 

There's no question that two quickly failed series can be a kind of wake up call for a TV writer, but so far it seems that Killen has learned all the wrong lessons from his experiences. It turns out that being too interesting for network television isn't the only way a show can get itself cancelled; the other way is simply by being not good enough. Perhaps the best thing I can say is that I'm now looking forward to Kyle Killen's next series, where hopefully he will return to the long story models of his previous creations. Fortunately there's one network left: let's hope he already has a CBS executive on speed dial.

Mind Games airs on Tuesday at 10pm EDT on ABC. 

 Mark Clamen is a writer, critic, film programmer and lifelong television enthusiast. He lives in Toronto, where he often lectures on television, film, and popular culture.

1 comment:

  1. After seeing "The Beaver" I have never been fond of Kyle Killen's writing. If he wants to write, he needs to take some lessons in engaging an audience for he doesn't have the imagination to write a great story of entertainment. Eventually Hollywood will stop gambling on him. "The Beaver" was one of the worst movies I've ever seen.