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?