[05/26/09 - 12:05 AM]
The Futon's First Look: "Mental" (FOX)
By Brian Ford Sullivan (TFC)

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The network's description: "When DR. JACK GALLAGHER (Chris Vance), a dynamic, young, and radically unorthodox psychiatrist, is named Director of Mental Health Services at a Los Angeles hospital, he turns a medical institution on its ear. Everything changes as Gallagher's radical methods and ideology inflame the staff and upset the system as a whole, and he must reconcile his effective, yet highly unorthodox treatment methods with his conservative boss, hospital administrator NORA SKOFF (Annabella Sciorra), a woman with whom he shares a romantic past. MENTAL is a medical drama that explores the complexities of the human mind as never before. To Jack, each case is a puzzle to be solved and each week, confronted with a different patient's crisis, including unknown, misunderstood, and even misdiagnosed conditions, Gallagher must plunge inside the mind of his patient long enough to gain true understanding of that patient, and to uncover what just might be the key to long-term recovery. Ever the rebel, Jack insists on getting to the root of his patients' illnesses by exploring first who they are as human beings. Patients find themselves at the hospital for a variety of reasons: some are brought in by the police on 72-hour holds, some are self-admitted and some are there to attend the day clinic, seeking to overcome the phobias and psychoses that make everyday life a struggle."

What did they leave out? "Mental" is the first of three Fox TV Studios international co-productions, a new initiative in which U.S. showrunners, writers and talent work with an international production team to create low-cost scripted programming. In the case of "Mental," all 13 episodes were shot in Bogota, Colombia. The other two projects - "Persons Unknown" (Mexico) and "Defying Gravity" (Vancouver) - have yet to find a U.S. broadcaster.

The plot in a nutshell: As the staff of Wharton Memorial Hospital in Los Angeles await the arrival of their new Director of Mental Health Services, incoming patient Vincent Martin (Silas Weir Mitchell) has a psychotic break in which he believes everyone around him is some sort of lizard creature in hiding. A stranger ("Prison Break's" Chris Vance) miraculously intervenes, going so far as to strip naked in order to calm Vincent's fears. But he's no ordinary stranger, he's actually Jack Gallagher, the aforementioned new Director. It seems that Nora Skoff (Annabella Sciorra), the hospital's administrator, has opted to bring in some fresh blood to the hospital, rather than give the job to the conservative heir apparent Veronica Hayden-Jones ("The 4400's" Jacqueline McKenzie). Not surprisingly, Jack and Veronica quickly butt heads over his radical ideas - whether it be dragging patients outside to listen to a local street band or allowing them to sit in on the team's meetings about their treatment. The rest off the staff isn't quite sure what to think of Jack, whether it be a pair of new residents - lesbian Chloe Artis (Marisa Ramirez) and lothario Arturo Suarez (an unfortunately mustachioed Nicholas Gonzalez) - or Carl Belle, a fellow doctor (Derek Webster) who seems more interested in keeping his profitable drug trials going than actually helping patients.

The crux of the pilot then focuses on the treatment of Vincent, who - for reasons unknown - went off his schizophrenia medication. Not helping matters is Vincent's sister/guardian (Katherine Kamhi) who's ready to commit him to an asylum should Jack not get him back on track within his legally allowed 72-hour observation period. From here Jack does the only thing "rogue" TV doctors can do - awkwardly ingratiate themselves into their patient's families, and, when that doesn't work, simply break into their homes to find answers. In the end, with his job on the line (and of course, when aren't rogue TV doctors' jobs on the line), Jack gets to the root of Vincent's problem and prescribes a solution that just so happens to include Veronica as a key component, tempering their conflict for the time being. The following week the team settles into what we assume will be their regular routine as they deal with Melissa Ranier (Nicholle Tom), a young woman who looks and acts as if she's seven months pregnant... but isn't. Making things even more tricky/creepy: the woman's husband (Michael B. Silver), an OB/GYN, is actually facilitating the charade. Along the way we learn a little more about our heroes: from Jack being haunted by his troubled/missing sister who still calls him at odd hours only to say nothing; to Veronica being in the midst of an affair with an ER doctor (Warren Kole) despite being married to a layabout jazz musician (Rob Boltin); to even Carl revealing himself as a bigger threat to Jack's job than Veronica was.

What works: For all the hubbub over its behind-the-scenes mechanics, "Mental" looks and feels like any other TV show. Now if only it was actually...

What doesn't: ...interesting to watch. Jack's "rogueness" ultimately falls somewhere in between "Patch Adams" and the teacher in high school who thinks he's cool because he lets you put the desks in a circle. He rides a bicycle to work! He makes the staff participate in a three-legged race with the patients! He makes his stuffy counterpart say things like, "You can't be serious?!" Yes, Jack is every bit the "rogue" quotes around the word would have you believe. Said overly simplistic worldview expands to its procedural elements as well as each patient is basically just one big intervention away from recovery. Guy thinks his wife is pregnant, fake a delivery to show she isn't. Guy thinks he's seeing lizard people, present him with the drawings he made pre-breakdown of the lizard people to show he isn't. And even if you forgive the obvious medical simplifications (I'm no doctor, but I'm pretty sure years of schizophrenia can't be magically repaired in 72 hours), the end result proves to be rather uninteresting. Not helping matters is a mostly wallflower cast as everybody just kind of shrugs and plays along with Jack's antics: Nora barely works up the energy to scold Jack; Arturo twirls his Zorro-esque mustache and tries to bed Chloe; and Veronica, originally presented as Jack's nemesis, instead gets lost in a sea of vanilla personal problems by the second week. It's the kind of show where if I didn't have to keep track of the names of the characters I'd honestly forget them within minutes of viewing. Only Vance's Jack seems to have a pulse, unfortunately it's a cliched, overly simplistic one.

The bottom line: Even by summer's standards - really we'll watch pretty much anything scripted - it's a pass.

  [may 2009]  


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