Mind Games Series Premiere Review: It's Good to Be Bad to Be Good

By Tim Surette

Feb 26, 2014

Mind Games S01E01: "Pilot"

I don't want to start off this review of Mind Games' debut by retracing series creator Kyle Killen's television career, but it's probably a good idea to do so, in order to better understand the genesis of Mind Games. Regardless, Killen's television career is brief (as he'd be the first to admit), so it won't take up too much time. The guy has achieved enough success that he's become a well-known name, at least among critics. Lone Star, a morally complex Fox drama about a man living dual lives while banging two broads, was the best pilot of the 2010 television season; it was canceled after two low-rated episodes. Awake, a sci-fi-esque story about a man living in two realities, was the sort of intelligent, daring programming that broadcast networks rarely gamble on, and it developed a passionate fan base and earned oodles of critical praise; we were lucky that NBC aired the entirety of its first and only season. 

So perhaps we should give Killen a break, on his third try at creating network television, for taming things down a bit with a logline that's less ambitious than those of his previous series. Mind Games doesn't involve dual lives, twisting realities, or penguins. In fact, it's as straightforward as Killen probably gets. But the man who once wrote a movie about a beaver hand puppet knows how to make compelling television with or without an unusual premise, and in Mind Games he's looking to elevate the ever present procedural genre with an entry that has a better chance of getting a second season than either of his earlier, more daring series combined, multiplied by 11, and cubed. 

Mind Games is a character-driven kinda-procedural involving a burgeoning-yet-also-ancient field of science, and it mostly works, especially given ABC's love of off-beat underdogs. Christian Slater (who has his own television curse to break after My Own Worst Enemy, Breaking In, and The Forgotten) plays Ross, a former convict who went to prison for fraud, and Steve Zahn plays his brother Clark, a former professor and expert in the field of human behavior. Together, and with the help of some employees, they form an agency called Edwards & Associates that solves clients' problems through the use of behavioral psychology by employing such tactics as manipulation, motivation, and reinforcement. They plot and plan high-risk operations with each member of the group adding their own specialty; basically, Mind Games is kind of like a heist show without any actual heists. 

As expected, the pilot jumped through many of the typical pilot hoops. Ross and Clark were out of money and about to call the streets home, and a last-ditch pitch to earn some extra capital and keep themselves afloat went horribly wrong when Clark had a manic episode and trashed the dude's office. The only client interested in the agency's services was broke, but he was a young man who needed life-saving surgery and his insurance company was up in its Death Star saying NO, citing whatever evil excuse it could. The scenario provided the perfect opportunity to win a case, earn some publicity, and start making some real $$$! And so the team set to work using "adrenalized implantation" (this show uses lots of phrases that sound fake but are probably real) to heighten the senses of the insurance man calling the shots on the boy's case by staging a confrontation and letting him win, allowing them to change the man's attitude when he was most susceptible to it by planting suggestions in his head (Clark likened the process to turning the man's brain into wet cement and writing in it). And it totally worked... for a while.

But what makes Mind Games more than just procedural fodder is the question of how the agency's tactics will be used, and how Ross's strengths will come into play. The most interesting part of the pilot wasn't when Clark's behavioral manipulation was used to convince the insurance boss that the kid's surgery was worth paying for (though that was definitely a highlight, particularly the use of slow-motion and opera to signify that the plan was working), it was when Ross had to take over and incorporate his specialty—fraud—to save the day. After the insurance company's board vetoed the approval for the surgery even after the case representative said to go for it, Ross faked a press conference in hopes the media attention would pressure the insurance company into going through with it anyway. I don't know how you reacted to this, but I felt a little sick in the stomach and angry. Frankly, I like it when TV makes me feel that way. 

And so Killen's love of duality rules again, this time with Clark's relatively noble use of psychology lying in contrast to Ross's deceptive use of con artistry. There's a sense of "Is it okay to be good by being bad?" to Mind Games, and if the show sticks to those murky waters, it will certainly stand out relative to other procedural series. Especially since a safer, more Leverage-y approach with a team of oddballs bringing down corporate fat cats has a better chance at finding a mainstream audience. (It should be noted that the agency could definitely take on clients with more nefarious demands, but I got the feeling that these guys will be doing good on a weekly basis.) 

Mind Games' pilot also put a lot of effort into making things messy between Clark and Ross, a good sign that the show is taking its characters seriously, and that there will be more to it than just showing us how Edwards & Associates wins. Clark is as unstable as they come, with his highs and lows hinging on his obsession with the former college student he had an affair with that ruined his career. And Ross is fixated on getting the dollar-dollar bills y'all—so much so that he interfered with his brother's life by paying Clark's girlfriend to break up with him so Ross could take advantage of Clark's focus and presence. Those were some pretty heavy fireworks to set up in Episode 1, and it seems silly to abandon the show before that fuse is lit.

When compared to Killen's past work, Mind Games doesn't hold up in terms of ambition and risk. But there's enough piquant possibility here to make it a daring experiment in the procedural genre. At the start, Mind Games doesn't come with the enthusiastic recommendations that we shouted from the hilltops for Lone Star and Awake, but it's a strong, likable show with promise.   


– I love Steve Zahn in anything, and this is no exception. He's able to harness an affable sort of craziness. 

– Clark doesn't want to take drugs for his condition because it dulls him, but you just know that episode is coming, and it's going to be heart-wrenching. 

– It seems a bit odd that Clark would hire Ross's ex-wife to join the company and that she'd just do it. That felt a bit forced. 

– There's an interesting idea here of how much the group is actually being manipulated by their own success. The theme of manipulation and motivation is really rich and can be used in countless ways. 

What'd you think of Mind Games' series premiere? Will you be back for Episode 2?

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  • karljacob001 Apr 04, 2014

    interesting to see how strongly ppl react to an actually not very extreme version of bipolarity.

    I love this show and damn enjoy to watch it.

  • beejhuff Mar 27, 2014

    Oddly enough the thing that I find most compelling about this show seems to be what most people who don't like the show quote as well:

    Steve Zahn's gut-wrenching portrayal of a person who suffers from SEVERE Bi-Polar disorder (among potentially other related mental illnesses).

    I've spent my whole life with a loved one who suffers similarly and I am sad to say it is the most accurate portrayal of this affliction I've ever seen.

    Believe me when I tell all of you who found it too upsetting to watch even 15 minutes of it on screen I know what you mean.

    But there are those of us though who couldn't stop watching just because we found it upsetting. Someone we loved was going through the same thing right in front of us and we didn't have the luxury of changing the channel.

    I'm not sure I can agree Zahn's performance is over the top, although my perspective is decidedly influenced by the fact that the psychotic / manic episodes performed on this series so far tend towards the bottom end of the mania I've witnessed first hand.

    I don't know if Killen had direct experience with someone like Zahn's character in his own personal life, but the writing for Zahn's "Dr. Edwards" feels way too authentic for it to be based on any just research or contrived fictions.

    It's a struggle to live with someone you love when they suffer from this mental illness. It's made all the more difficult because in so many other ways (professionally / academically / musically) sufferers are often incredibly gifted.

    But the highs come with an incredible price and they aren't making it up on the show when they say that the medications needed to effectively treat this illness (maybe 'learn to cope with' is a more accurate term) are pretty toxic and incredibly potent.

    What seems so powerful to me is the stark-yet-in-your-face writing of Killen combined with an incredibly accurate portrayal by Zahn of a VERY Bi-Polar but incredibly gifted behavioral scientist. Although it's been treated as a bit of a trope in some horror / stalker / drama pieces, it's a very real and very scary mental illness to suffer from or have a loved one suffer from and I can see why many people wouldn't possibly want to confront any dramatization of the afflicted.

    I like the show and hope that they don't have to tone-down the manic episodes or subsequent depressive "come-downs" TOO much to make it more palatable for audiences. I'd hate to see it watered down - I kind of feel like the original writer suggested - perhaps it IS good when a show makes you feel strongly - sometimes a little sick in the stomach and sometimes angry....

  • opinionater9 Mar 09, 2014

    I watched the 1st 2 eps and don't think I can sit thru a 3rd. The premise alone could work but with crazy Zahn character - well, it's just unbelievable and too annoying to watch. They could have really worked the script sans the craziness. I'm getting tired of show with gifted & troubled leads. Can't a normal person lead an interesting life? They'd almost have to reboot this series to make it work. No one will tune in to sit thru the ridiculous antics of Zahn (luv him, hate the character). Sorry...I was really looking forward to the Slater/Zahn paring.

  • MiraTellia Mar 07, 2014

    After 2 episodes I'm done. I wanted to like it, but like many other have said - it was just too manic. And who were we supposed to root for? The extremely self righteous and bitter ex-wife? The no morals manipulative bother? I suppose the alienating mess of a mentally ill bother was the hero? Maybe we were just supposed to root for the clients - I don't know, all I know is it didn't work for me. I loved Awake, I hope Killen gets another shot when this fails.

  • zinodvd Mar 06, 2014

    I was really looking forward to this show. I thought it would be about science, manipulation, deception, clever ruses and con-artistry (i.e. Lie to me, Perception, The Mentalist etc) but instead I was very annoyed and got tired of shouting, murmuring and self-pitying. I gave the show a 2nd chance and watched the 2nd episode. Please somebody ask the writers to use more science (psychology, brain neurology, NLP etc) and turn the actors to intelligent adults!

  • DesertWolf Mar 03, 2014

    I couldn't understand this show, what is all about??? after few minutes I lost interesting in watching this show, Steven kept screaming and shouting all the time and move fast, as I learned from seeing Christian Slater in any show that mean one thing this show will never go to second season or it will be cancel after few episodes... what a waste of time.......

  • flintslady Mar 02, 2014

    10 minutes in and Steve Zahn was giving me a headache. Pass. Too bad, I really liked Awake.

  • Hitchhiker Mar 01, 2014

    Wathcing the trailer I thought this will be another show about how to shake down the big bad guys with comedy elements, so I was kind of surprised how it was not funny at all. Throwing away that concept I realize that the things that I noticed during the pilot shows great prospects as a drama.
    I don't want to get my hopes up, but if this will be about Slater being the evil one manupilating the manupilator then I will stick around.

  • othsmallsuplost Feb 28, 2014

    What the hall was that??? This pilot is basically telling us that the ends justifies the means. Creating a fake situation, scamming, lying, cheating, illegally using a big company's name, using a child's tears, having your own brother fired by creating a fake love story, all of those things are ok as long as the intentions are good?!! Wow, I think all of this is messed up and even though the cast was like "we don't like to lie and cheat" I'm pretty sure the show is gonna work that way. There is no chemistry between the 2 brothers, no bond whatsoever and Clark's character is too much for me! Too much passion, too much yelling, too much throwing everything around. The actor must have been wiped out after shooting this! It might be accurate with the disease of bipolarity, i don't know, but it is wayyy too much for a television show. Oh, and that whole Inception "we'll put an idea in his head" thing was a good idea but absolutely uncredible!! I'll pass!

  • averysays Mar 06, 2014

    "...that whole Inception "we'll put an idea in his head" thing was a good idea but absolutely uncredible!!"

    That was the dealbreaker for me. I have no time or interest for TV shows and movies that remind me that I'm watching a TV show or movie. They should suck you in and keep you until the end.

  • hopitopia Feb 28, 2014

    I didn't hate it, but as everyone else has said, Zahn's character was giving me such a headache through half the show that I almost turned it off. And the set up of the two underlings wasn't there at all: they just were kinda there. I don't know, I'll probably give the next ep a watch and then see. I did get blindsided by Ross paying Beth to date his brother, and then get him fired for dating a student. No wonder he kept telling him to get over it!

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