In Plain Sight premiered little less than four years ago, at a time when the out-of-the-blue success of Burn Notice made it seem plausible that the USA network might turn into a kind of retro broadcast wildlife preserve for decent, episodic genre shows. The fact that the show was originally broadcast on Sunday nights seemed almost like a throwdown to viewers who had become accustomed to spending their day of rest worshipping at the altar of HBO, watching The Sopranos and The Wire and Deadwood and Curb Your Enthusiasm and, um, John From Cincinnati. It was as if USA was saying, here, before you go back to work tomorrow, how about kill an hour with something that nobody will be talking about around the watercooler? (It’s probably not a coincidence that both Burn Notice, which is set in Miami, and In Plain Sight, which is set in Albuquerque, both debuted in the summer. They’re the kind of shows that seem designed to go well with air conditioning.)
If it sounds as if I’m knocking In Plain Sight because it’s not intended as innovative, groundbreaking TV, let me clear that misconception up right away. I’m knocking it because it’s lame. In one of those funny little paradoxes that watching too much TV can make one far too familiar with, its lameness came to see much more offensive, over the course of five seasons, than the lameness of a number of other cookie-cutter USA network shows, just because In Plain Sight, unlike some of those other series, once seemed to have the potential to be a lot better.
There’s not a damn thing wrong with the basic set-up: Deputy U.S. Marshal Mary Shannon (Mary McCormack), with the help of her long-suffering partner Marshall (Frederick Weller), is assigned new inductees into the Witness Protection Program and gets involved in their messes, which often involve shootouts and other encounters with disagreeable and heavily armed individuals. And the show has a genuine star in McCormack, a warm, funny actress who should have been able to play the hell out of the role as it seemed to be conceived: Mary Shannon is smart, loyal, and brave but also a self-destructive loner who keeps both intimacy and career advancement at bay with her sharp, acerbic tongue. Luckily, for both herself and the audience, she’s securely nestled in the support system provided by Weller’s endearingly sexless Marshall and Paul Ben-Victor as their good-natured boss.
For its first two seasons, In Plain Sight managed to be passable, even if McCormack and Weller were carrying the show on their backs, and despite the fact that the stuff involving Mary’s family, represented by Lesley Ann Warren as her recovering-alcoholic mother and Nichole Hiltz as her dumbass sister, ranged from irritating distraction to torture test. The show peaked early in its third season, when John McNamara (Profit, Venegeance Unlimited) briefly took over as executive producer, but after McNamara left, the show just slid straight down. It was as if, having rallied and been made to believe that it might actually turn into something, the show watched Shane riding away from it and resolved to not get fooled again.
In its season-long death throes, In Plain Sight has amused itself by indulging most of the worst ideas you could think of for a dying show to try. Mary the committment-phobe had a baby. Marshall, whose relationship with her seemed to have been pretty solidly defined as a prickly but mutually loving, platonic work partnership, started dropping vague hints that he might see her as more than just someone who could bust his chops and patch up his gunshot wounds. Happily, the mom-and-sis scenes, which had begun to recede a bit, stayed on the back burner, but at the same time, Stephen Lang was brought in to play Mary’s much-bitched-about but never-seen deadbeat dad, a career crook who had run out on the family decades before. He was dying, of course, and also hell-bent on demonstrating his stubborn last vestiges of love for his daughters by blowing away his mean boss, lest he live to threaten the girls he’d left behind.
Since Marshall and the other characters were constantly interrupting the action to conduct seminars on how Mary’s “issues” and how they were the result of her old man’s having walked out her, finally seeing the old man in action only added a layer of obviousness to a show that already had plenty of it, thanks. And not just psychological obviousness, either; In Plain Sight is the kind of show where, as soon as a new member of the program says that being in witness protection is a kind of a blessing, because now he won’t have to travel so much for work and can finally spend more time with his family, you know that he’s going to be revealed as a bigamist with a whole other family that he’s been checking in with during those work trips. The only surprises are how little time the show wastes in revealing this, and how surprised the people in the show are.
Sometimes, when you hear that a show you used to watch but that’s outstayed its welcome is finally about to come to a close, you can get a little nostalgic tickle from visiting it on its last night and remembering what you once liked about it. Coming back to In Plain Sight to watch its finale is more of an infuriating experience. The show went out with a bad case of senioritis, with a contemptuously lazy hour of TV that seemed to be based on idea that anybody who wanted real entertainment wouldn’t still be checking it to this channel in this time slot.
As if to emphasis that this one is just for the fans, who wouldn’t be fans of this show at this stage of the game if they actually wanted anything more than a couple of notches above a blank screen, there’s no even a plot attached to the latest witness in Mary’s address book. There is a witness: a young model who gets to deliver an introductory speech marking the outlines of her character with an extra-thick magic marker, and giving Mary a basis for empathizing her, (“I was discovered at 14 in front of a Dairy Queen in Dubuque. A year later, I was paying off the mortgage, funding Mom’s futile chemo treatment, fending off my stepfather with a whip and a chair.”) No gangsters or any other external threats ever rear their heads, but she does attempt to kill herself with an overdose of pills, the clearest motivation for her act being that Mary has to save her from something.
For most of its run, In Plain Sight had trouble focusing, because it was never able to decide how “dark” it was comfortable with Mary being, or how much it wanted to be an action show about her work, as opposed to a quirky character show that gave almost equal time to her troubled family relationships. The big, climactic, cards-on-the-table scene between Mary and Marshall shows just how far the show ever got from deciding who its characters were and what they were supposed to be about. After his fiancee gives him an ultimatum— she basically tells him that she thinks he’s in love with Mary, and that she can’t marry him until he sorts out his own feelings—he tells Mary that he loves her, but that he doesn’t, like, love-love her, and he needs her to need him less, so that he can devote himself to his new marriage the way he’s been devoting himself to their partnership. Watching McCormack and Weller play this scene, it’s easy to imagine them trying to express emotions toward each other that they’d never associated with their characters until they read these pages, at the tail end of having worked together for four years.
I know I’m being hard on In Plain Sight; it may look as if I’m practically dancing on its grave. That’s because I’m judging it according to what I think the talent involved in the show is capable of. That might strike some people as unfair. Nobody works at their highest capacity all the time, and maybe In Plain Sight should be judged only according to the very modest goals those people set for themselves when they were making it. But I promise you, no matter how little the fans might have wanted from a show like this, by the time In Plain Sight wrapped for good, it was giving them even less.