Unconventionality sells: The success of procedural franchises like House and Life are banking on that fact—it's not enough that the main characters are good at their jobs, but they have to be honest-to-God savants. And one or seven people have to question their ways one or seven times. Though goddammit, do they ever get results.
But it's one thing to see the central character go off book; it's another to be told, at every impasse, all about just how weird they are, and in all the ways we've seen time and time again.
Such is the case tonight with Mental, the freshman Fox drama taking place in a psychiatric ward. If there's one thing the show suffers from more than everything else—and believe you me, it suffers—it's the mistaken assumption that viewers ain't looking for originality.
See, Jack Gallagher is new at the hospital, having been plopped out of relative obscurity from a country bumpkin–type ward into this big city job—and wouldn't you know it, he's been named Director Of Psychiatric Services. His colleagues are bitter they weren't honored with the title, or at least just his sassy, seething coworker Veronica (like House's Wilson, but with breasts); but most are just curious to see what this guy's capable of. After all, he hasn't worked in, you know, a real hospital before or anything.
Their first experience with the man comes when a patient topples over the edge, stripping down to his birthday suit and brandishing a table as his weapon of choice. Gallagher springs to the rescue, so to speak, taking off his own clothes and talking the patient down, winding up on the hospital's version of YouTube in the process. But who is this other man, shrouded in secrecy and literally nothing else? Why, he be Jack Gallagher, captain of the unexpected! And it doesn't stop there, as it seems Gallagher has other radical ideas to "shake things up"; for example, inviting patients to staff meetings so they can provide feedback to the stuffy doctors with ivory sticks up their collective asses. (They're so out of touch!)
For all the emphasis the show places on Gallagher's plays-by-his-own-rules–ness, his actions strike me as extremely tame. The main storyline involves that first naked patient, whose meds have been cramping his natural drawing ability, and thus interfering with his life. The patient's sister wants him out to a mental health facility, but Gallagher believes he can find another cure. So he sets about getting to know this patient in all the most radical ways, like showing up to his sister's house and asking her kids some polite questions, and later breaking into his bedroom quietly, as not to disturb too much. Also: he goes to the hospital late at night with some pencils and a blank book of paper, so the patient can do some drawing. It's hard to believe the man hasn't been arrested.
It's also not just the writing that fails to set this show apart, but the acting as well. Chris Vance's Jack Gallagher smirks all the time—the Jimmy Fallon of Fox dramas—so it's hard to take most, if not all, of what he says seriously. Marisa Ramirez and Nicholas Gonzalez, who are two of the younger staff members at the hospital, contribute literally nothing. And Annabella Sciorra's Nora (the Cuddy, as it were) plays it like she watched a few episodes of 30 Rock, fast-forwarded through all the Liz Lemon funny parts, and studied Tina Fey's awkward deadpan to the point where it stopped feeling natural.
But for all the show's faults, it's especially hard to overlook its, well, look—amidst all the shoddy camerawork and painful flashes of the patient-of-the-week's fantastical hallucinations, this falls somewhere between a low-budget sci-fi movie and a daytime soap opera. For a much-touted Fox drama, the miniscule level of visual quality is perhaps the only shocking thing Mental has going for it.
- By the end, I was getting seriously annoyed that the network threw up the Mental graphic before each commercial break. Thanks, guys, but I'm aware of what show I'm currently watching, thank you very much.
- Why ditch the cat guy? He only had two scenes in this episode, but could have easily been the central patient. Hmm…
- Hearing Nora proclaim that she would have never chosen Jack before she had cancer brought back some wonderful, wonderful memories of The Room.