February 25, 2014

THE SKED Pilot Review: “Mind Games”


MIND GAMES:  Tuesday 10PM on ABC – If Nothing Else Is On…

The creator of ABC’s midseason MIND GAMES, Kyle Killen, was the man behind Lone Star and Awake (as well as the movie The Beaver), so he doesn’t lack in fertile imagination.  What he hasn’t had, however, is any commercial success whatsoever, and Mind Games, despite its unusual basic concept, appears to be his attempt to make a much more conventional kind of television show–which seems to mean making it as much as possible like a USA Network series.

The similarities between Mind Games and USA’s line-up are so numerous, it’s like Killen was taking notes over a long weekend of network marathons; you may half-expect a “Characters Welcome ” logo to turn up while you’re watching it.  The general tone is the mix of genial comedy and light drama that USA uses as its template, and like White Collar, Suits, Graceland and any number of the network’s shows, the premise revolves around a pair of mismatched partners who respect but don’t completely trust each other–and as in Royal Pains, they’re brothers, in this case Ross Edwards (Christian Slater) and Clark (Steve Zahn).  Ross is a little bit shady, having recently been released from minimum-security prison for white collar crimes, while Clark–a la Monk, Psych, etc–is brilliant but a little bit odd, in his case bipolar and not always apt to take his meds (he throws furniture when he’s upset, and was recently fired from his professorship after an affair with an undergraduate, with whom he’s obsessed).  It seems from the pilot as though the brothers will spend the series shuttling between taking on assignments (all of which are essentially con jobs a la White Collar) for professional purposes, while serving on the  others as go-dooders, just like the gang on Burn Notice.  (It’s almost a meta touch that the supporting cast includes Megalyn Echikunwoke from USA’s The 4400.)

Perhaps Killen (and his studio and network) felt like a strong dose of familiarity was necessary because Ross and Clark’s business is so off the beaten path.  Clark’s form of genius is in understanding the invisible signals picked up unconsciously by someone’s mind and using that for behavioral modification–it’s a much larger version of the kind of thing jury consultants do, when they read the body language of the jurors and advise attorneys about which tactics are working and who on the jury seems most sympathetic.  In Clark’s case, he goes beyond “reading” people to altering their behavior.  He plays on the idea that by hitting the right psychological notes on a subject, anyone can be manipulated and for virtually any purpose–for example, in the pilot, if a insurance company’s ultra-bureaucratic claim adjustor could be convinced at just the right moment that he’s really a heroic type, he’d ignore his company’s guidelines and allow a worthy but unqualified claim to go through.  Ross, for his part, sees the financial possibilities in enabling corporate executives to use such techniques.

The pilot takes us through the start of the brothers’ new enterprise, as they try to come up with a business model and their opposing styles grate on each other.  All the characters are in the workplace:  apart from Ross and Clark, Megan (Echikunwoke) is an actress they use in their bits of theatre, Latrell (Cedric Sanders) had worked with Clark at the university, and Miles (Gregory Marcel) was with Ross in his pre-jail days.

As always with Killem, there are plenty of notions here, but at least in the pilot (directed with class by Miguel Sapochnik), they’re not under sufficient control.  A little of Steve Zahn being manic goes a long way–and there’s far more than a little of him doing that in the initial hour.  Slater is better as the more practical brother, although a last-minute pilot twist feels more clever than it’s worth.  The rest of the characters, for now, have little personality.  More to the point, there doesn’t seem to be much substance to the scams our heroes will pull each week, which based on the pilot will be unlikely and attenuated.

ABC has been dead in the water at 10PM on Tuesdays (this season alone there were Lucky 7 and Killer Women), which makes expectations low, but there’s not much readily promotable about Mind Games, and it’s not getting the critical support that Killem’s previous shows did (not that it helped them much).  Neither daringly offbeat nor an effectively breezy procedural in USA’s mode, it may end up where its creator’s other series have gone before.



About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."