If Mary McCormack isn't a star, that's not because she doesn't have what it takes. As an actress, McCormack is smart and quick and tart, willing to go deep in expressing a character's darker emotional states, such as intense loneliness and helpless self-destructiveness, without ever getting sloppy or pouring it on. At the same time, she's sexy and funny and warm. In the murky fog of Steven Soderbergh's semi-scripted political serial K Street, the infrequent, haphazardly scheduled appearances by her smile were just about the only human thing the show gave its few viewers to hang onto. When In Plain Sight premiered in 2008, the chance to see McCormack in a leading role in her own series was the show's biggest selling point, and now, with the series entering its fourth season, she's still its primary attraction and its only dependable one.
In Plain Sight is part of USA's roster of action/detective shows featuring "quirky" characters in buddy relationships. USA has gotten to where it is in the basic cable food chain by becoming the comfort food network. It likes to tout itself as a showplace for "unusual" characters, and the heroes of these shows tend to be offbeat, but that doesn't go any farther than it used to in the days when every detective on TV had some oddball quality (or disability) to set him apart from the rest of the lineup: You had Columbo the slob, Cannon the fatso, Barnaby Jones the geezer, and so on. The USA shows give their stars a few more layers to work with, but they still tend to be underfunded and feel as half-assed as if they'd been stamped out with a cookie cutter.
Viewers who aren't altogether happy about the trend toward greater sophistication in genre TV since the days of Hunter probably enjoy the cheesiness for its old-school feel, and maybe some people who like a little sophistication six days of the week enjoy it too. And sometimes, when the cast is good and has something to work with and the creators see the lack of resources and the tight constraints as a challenge, there's something to enjoy: Burn Notice was fun for a while, before Matt Nix started getting offers from real networks and took his eye off the ball. But if anybody working for USA ever used the old line, "Do you want it done right, or do you want it done today?" the response would probably be, "We want it done yesterday!"
There are talented people working on In Plain Sight. Frederick Weller, who plays McCormack's partner, relocating and watching over inductees into the Federal Witness Protection Program in Albuquerque, has a compellingly weird, watchful look in his hatchet face and a brainy drollness that makes him convincing as someone who could put up with MacCormack's acidic, defensively acerbic Mary Shannon. It also helps make it convincing that the two of them could work together day in and day out, get gummed up in each other's personal lives and come to care about each other and never threaten to strike sexual sparks. (Give or take a remark or two that led no place, the show has just never gone there. I used to wonder if this was a conscious choice, if the show just didn't want to go there or if it didn't have the option of going there because assertive male sexuality just wasn't in Weller's range. Happily, he recently got to show off his alpha-jerk side in a too-brief guest appearance on The Good Wife, as a fixer whose method of negotiating with Josh Charles was to goad him into having a street fight.)
The show has had a habit of taking on good actors, such as Leslie Ann Warren, Paul Ben-Victor, and Joshua Malina, who every year looks more and more like the lost Raimi brother, as part of its regular or recurring cast and then underutilizing or just not knowing what to do with them. But every so often, a guest star will arrive who can give McCormack someone to play with. That happened last year, with Fred Ward as an aged ex-con imported from a time when crooks were men and with Laura San Giacomo as a dying Mafia wife and Donnie Wahlberg as an ex-thief focused on protecting his son. (If Wahlberg had any sense, he'd be negotiating for a return appearance; playing that role again would be like a shot of adrenaline to the heart after having to listen to all that crotchety paternal counsel he has to endure from Tom Selleck on Blue Bloods.)
Both San Giacomo and Wahlberg were on during the truncated reign of John McNamara. McNamara, a specialist in shows that are beloved by the 20 or 30 people who saw them during their original broadcast (Profit, Vengeance Unlimited, Eyes, The Adventures of Briscoe County, Jr.), was brought in as executive producer at the start of the third season, and for a while the show had a new tautness and focus, but since he bowed out of it, it's gotten flabby again. In an age when TV creators aren't shy about using the greater degree of audience feedback made possible by the Internet to retool their shows, In Plain Sight has managed to retain most of the problems it had when it started.
The new season premiere may be the show's flabbiest hour yet. Usually, the show's formula calls for an episode to begin with a sequence showing how the latest witness who winds up in McCormack and Weller's laps got in trouble in the first place. Then they'll get into trouble again, and our heroes will spend the rest of the hour getting them out, with some padding provided by Mary's goddamn family: her pathetic mother (Warren, who's listed in the opening credits in tonight's episode but is nowhere to be seen on-screen) and her if-possible-even-more-pathetic sister Brandi, a dim cupcake who's started getting within sight of an age where she can no longer count on one more bad boy to pick her up at the gas station and give her someone to ride along with. This week did provide a special witness, a car thief whose introduction to Mary was in 2004, a scene that the show staged for our benefit so we could get to see McCormack in bad flashback hair.
This guy, though, didn't generate the plot that followed; he was just along for the ride, brought in to lend his car-stealing expertise when Mary's sister Brandi was wrongly suspected of criminal behavior that she clearly lacked the mental equipment to bring off. Mary has always been shown to have utter contempt for her sister, who is supposed to be different from her in every way, given that Mary is smart, hard-working, and fun to watch. In the four years the show has been on the air, Mary has torn through boyfriends, and her mother has receded to a far corner of the background, but the writers remain devoted to Brandi, for reasons they ought to take up with their shrinks. As the series has progressed, we're supposed to have been witness to her stumbling attempts at growing up. This has mostly amounted to one scene after another of Brandi crying and squalling because Mary got sore at her again instead of appreciating that, even though Brandi's latest misadventures led to Mary getting abducted by a couple of goons who meant to rape and kill her, she meant well.
The season premiere did hold out vague promises that the show will try, once again, to sort of retool itself. Rachel Boston has real charm and a killer Southern accent as an agent who connects with Welker's Marshall, and though the subplot about Ben-Victor's indulgent boss looking for new hires is a dog, it's nice that he finally figured out that he ought to have more than two people working under him. (When Marshall observes that the office is a bit "understaffed," it plays as an inside joke. So does the moment when Ben-Victor tells an applicant he isn't sure he can hire her because he doesn't think Mary will like her, and the woman asks, "You're the Chief Inspector in this office, is that right?" For a minute, he looks as if he's wondering if they need to vote on it.) The overriding theme, which is read aloud in voiceover for the slower viewers, is that everyone around Mary is moving on with their lives while she remains resistant to change, even when her life as it is remains miserable.
There's an implicit promise there that this season, we'll get to see her shaken out of that rut, but In Plain Sight has made promises like that before, only to land back at Square One. The last season ended with Mary in a tropical location in a clinch with an FBO agent played by Steven Weber, and it's supposed to be all too typical of Mary that, we're told at the beginning of this episode, she ended up persuading him to return to his estranged wife. But it's all too typical of the show itself that their whole tryst took place off-camera. Even if Steven Weber isn't your idea of a romance novel cover made flesh, Mary McCormack is overdue to get the chance to act out her character's steamiest fantasies onscreen, and the viewers who've stuck with this show out of devotion to her are overdue to get to watch her do it.