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ABC (ended 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.   



NOTES

– 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?


Previously Aired Episode

AIRED ON 6/10/2015

Season 1 : Episode 13

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

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"...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.
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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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Well, looks like it got canceled. I think only one more episode will air.
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Where did you see this?
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Shoot! Can't find it, now. But, I thought it was a tv.com article.
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I really wanted to like this show, but as everyone else stated here, it was just too much with the manic behaviour. I found myself feeling really stressed out just watching it. If they can dial that down, I will consider giving it another chance. One note on believability: when their company's "actress" did the press conference, I would think that would blow her cover, especially if the guy she duped on the bus saw the press conference. Or did I misunderstand and the press conference wasn't really aired on TV at all?
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you're right, it doesn't make any sense even though she could be a damsel in distress and still work for an insurance company. But she wouldnt be able to scam anyone else after that!
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so after being largely obnoxious throughout the start it ended with what I see as terrible in twists in both slater's character having payed beth to stay away and the impact beth's reappearance had on claire.

I actually have anomisoty towards this show now. will see if it dissipates by next week well enough to warrant giving it another shot.
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it's pretty funny the comment below me used this word because I came here pre-rehearsed with the same one in mind. I'm 17 minutes in and all I can say is it's effing manic. I would rather zahn was just playing davis from treme again. I'll finish it up but it's nothing like what I thought it would be, I though it would be a lot less filler and over-explaining, and am thinking everyone who didn't tune in probably would not have enjoyed it anyway.

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Wanted to like it but they have to bring down Zahn's manic a notch to make it watchable...I almost didn't finish watching it because of that ridiculously crazy element. Yes, it may be realistic but pardon me for being one of those rare beings that actually use tv for entertainment and escape.
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I liked it well enough on the whole to stick around a while to see if it settles into itself...and I do really like the Lie To Me/Leverage vibe, but the biggest problem I had with it is that it didn't make me care about any of the characters. I see potential. I can envision the group growing on me after a while, but somethin's gotta happen in the next couple of episodes to make me like 'em more.
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I don't know if I was tired or what, but watching this I just felt like a big WTF was this??? Strange show.
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Part of this show's problems was a lack of goals and a lack of perceived achievement, they had to basically throw out their whole premise to get that across in the end. The other part is that both leads take their character too far to extremes, and it just felt screechy.

Ultimately, this did indeed feel like Lie to Me mixed with Leverage and Perception, and it didn't do any of that well. It's just too easy to walk away from, there's nothing compelling up front on its own.
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Ehhhh, I didn't NOT like it, but I didn't like it as much as I hoped I would. I did have quite high expectations for this because of a mix of Kyle Killen, Steve Zahn, and the premise of the show. I think the main problem I had was that Clark felt a bit too manic to watch continuously. I figure he'll tone it down most episodes (which is why I'm definitely gonna watch some more), but my head hurts a bit when I watch stuff where a bunch of people are yelling at each other.

The other smaller complaint is that I could probably have done without the twist at the end about Ross having purposely caused his brother all that pain and trouble just so that Ross could probably make some money off his brother's talents. It's interesting as far as TV-drama goes, but it also leaves a bit of a sour taste in my mouth. Ross being an ex-con and his extortion plan was enough for me, adding that he's (probably) using his brother for profit was a bit off-putting. But since off-putting was likely the point, I forced myself to not consider it that big a problem, and I'll see how sneaky-bad the writers plan on making Ross.
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Ross's ex-wife is obviously in love with Clark.
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I'm going to give it a try because I miss "Lie to Me" terribly... it still hurts... so let's see if this can replace it somehow even if the premise is (thank the gods) "not the same"

PLUS I just loved Awake...
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Ok, watched it and yes Zahn needs to turn it down a bit... but boy that is the best channeling of Robin Williams that I've seen!
So 4 eps and we'll see what happens...
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lie to me was so much better. it had its moments on not overly plausible but at least there was never talk of "we could start a war" "or end one."
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Ya Lie to Me was definitely the first thing that popped into my head when reading about this show.
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Just thought of a plot hole...

Ross paid "a small fortune" to Beth to get Clark fired and then to disappear.

But, she comes back and hands him a check. "I don't want it."

He never noticed she hadn't cashed the check? That wouldn't have raised a few red flags?

Hmmm... other explanations that work...

It was a Cashier's check, so he would have no way of knowing.

It wasn't the same check. She cashed it, but didn't spend it. Then wrote her own check to return the money.

Regardless, they apparently have "a small fortune" available to fund their new business for a while.
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It definitely was a different check; she said, "It's all there."
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Ahh. Good catch. Thx.
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Based on the ratings I am glad that I didn't waste DVR space for this. It'll be canceled after two episodes.
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didn't like it. no episode 2 for me.
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Loved it, and I will continue to watch if it continues to be like that. As far as the ex-wife goes, did anyone else get a sense that maybe she was in love with Zahn's character, Clark?
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Is that a serious question? How could anybody not see it? It wasn't exactly subtle.
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Especially at the end there, when Clark kissed the girl he was in love with. They showed Ross' ex-wife looking quite sad/hurt/jealous for a moment.
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Ya I think that was the point.
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Yes, very much so.
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I enjoyed watching it, but I was a little annoyed by the device of making Ross's abilities seem criminal, and setting up an ongoing internal conflict thereby. I mean, his idea - the only one on the table - actually worked (after tweaking by Clark); his ex and his business manager seemed to suggest that the boy's surgery was ill-gotten gains because the press conference was a fraud. But the initial "adrenaline implant" was also criminal; had a policeman walked by and the "subject" decided to press charges, the business manager would be in jail for assault.

As you suggest, it's probably going to be a Leverage-type show, but a constant harping on Ross for his shady ideas will get to be a real bore after a while.
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– 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.

Well, it looked to me that Ross's ex-wife might be in love with Clark, so that's why she agreed. Clark also explained that the reason he hired her is because she is able to help calm him.
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it was said that they slept together. I believe.
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Yeah, but only in the vein of "Clark hadn't slept in two weeks". It was far, far from expressly stated, that they did anything besides sleeping together, even if they were in the same bed.
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especially considering slater's line " you don't sleep with your brother's ex-wife" &--paraphrasing.
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that's just odd frickin' writing then.
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It was a fun watch. It felt like a dysfunctional Leverage team that's con went completely off the rails.
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I like Steve Zahn. And I do enjoy some of Christian Slater's TV and big screen efforts. Alas, these series won't work for me - I got brained freezed with lack of attention before the pilot reached it's final stretch.
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So how is this different from The Crazy Ones? Isn't Steve Zahn just a younger Robin Williams?
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There really isn't much manipulation and "mind games" to The Crazy Ones. The only similarity between the two is that Group A (firm or agency) is trying to help Group B (client). In that regard, many shows based on law or private detective work would be considered similar. Robin Williams' character in TCO is nowhere near this manic -- he's just eccentric.
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Strange comparison. The shows are completely different. And, RW in TCO is not nearly so manic. He's mellowed in his recent years.
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Ya I have to agree, this comparison is really odd.
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My understanding was that it wasn't JUST that Ross paid Clark's girlfriend to leave...

BUT that he paid her to BE his girlfriend and THEN leave. But the girlfriend realized she actually had real feelings and gave the money back at the end.

It seemed he did all of this to force Clark to freak out and quit his job so they can work together. Whether for profit or wanting to be with his brother, I didn't quite get.

But I might have read too much into it and it was just pay-to-breakup.
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You didn't read to much into it. It was pretty obvious.
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I agree. She said that she would give Ross his money back "because I've actually come to care for him", or something like that. Which - wow - It's one thing to pay your brother's bad girlfriend to "go away". It's an entirely different thing to pay a stranger to seduce your psychologically vulnerable brother, then start a relationship with him only to break it off. That's the ultimate betrayal.
I loved the set-up where Clark explicitly states at the beginning, that it's better to show your cards from the get-go - to admit your flaws upfront, even the bad stuff. Sure, "I've got a serious psychologically disorder and my brother's just come out of prison" sounds bad, but it's a whole lot worse if someone finds out later. Then they feel betrayed. When it's upfront, people can seemingly forgive even big things.
This is not only interesting as a "psychological knowledge tidbit", but also because we now explicitly know that when it comes to Beth (the for hire-girlfriend), Ross will learn what a lot of politicians already know: it's not the crime that'll get ya' - it's the cover-up.
Yes, telling his brother about his abundant betrayal would be horrible. But every day that passes where he doesn't tell him, is making it worse. Not to mention that it will be so, so much worse if Clark finds out on his own.
I really hope we get enough episodes to see some of the fall-out play out.
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That's exactly what I got from that scene too. Ross paid her to hook up with him in the first place, probably do everything she could to please him, then break up. I get the sense that it was for the more evil reason, for profit; to use Clark to make money.
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Good catch. And, it sounds right.
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They really need to find a balance with Clark's manic phase bi-polar behavior. It can be tiring to watch all the time. Having just binged out on three seasons of Homeland, watching Claire Danes' arguably more realistic take on it was also tough. I liked the show better when she was on her meds. It would be nice if they found another way of introducing plot complications than just having Clark lose control at crucial moments. That said, there seemed to be enough of a dynamic between him and Ross and the ex-wife to keep things interesting for a while. Worth a few more episodes to see what they do with it.
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I like it! I'm in! I consider this my long overdue House replacement.
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It is not even close to being a replacement for House.
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Other than no sane client would hire either these idiots or House, and thus absurdly unbelievable, there is no similarity at all. House was, at least written to be watched, and reasonably well acted. This is a top down mess. Premise is trite, writing is juvenile, and there is not so much acting as hyperactive scenery chewing. Zahn overacted and resorted to frantic on Treme, and here shows he is a one-trick pony. He is a far cry from Robin Williams in talent, and in originality.
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I actually enjoyed the pilot quite a bit. SOME of Clark's behavior was so over the top, I had a hard time hanging on to believably, but I think the group dynamics is quite good and quite believable. Quirks, motivations, and attitudes of each of them rang true for me.

It seems clear each episode will have 2 battles going on -- the external one for their client and the internal one within the group. And, there are enough varying personalities in the group to have different stresses from week to week -- not always just between the two brothers.
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I thought it was okay. I didn't love it but I didn't hate it either. I will give the 4 episode test and see how it does. I thought the reason Ross's ex-wife agree to work with them because I think she is in love with Clark. Also I think Ross paid Beth to date and break up with him not just break up with him.
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I will most definitely return for episode 2. I thought the pilot episode did everything that a pilot episode should. It introduced interesting characters and I like the premise and seeing what is done with it. I also thought the overall cast had some great chemistry.
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I thought this was a fantastic pilot! I mean things were going at 100 mph and bouncing all over the place! If you blinked you missed it! THAT is what I call television! I hope this show makes it!
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I miss Lonestar but I'm going to wait for four episodes to come out and watch them all in a row then decide if i should erase them from my dvr or wait for the next episode to come out.
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I may be in the minority, but -- sorry Tim -- can't back you on this one. Granted, you obviously really like the show's creator. But I didn't see his other shows. So, to me, it wasn't a 3rd try -- it was a One-and-Done.

Now, in full disclosure, I admit not watching the whole show. After 15 minutes, I got up and said: "I can't take an hour of this." I love Steve Zahn too. But his craziness waaaay overshot "affable." Everyone has seen the crazy-but-good-hearted genius (pick a Dr. Who, Monk, House, the A-Team's Murdoch, even Archer's Dr. Krieger), but Clark begins like a Mt. Vesuvius that immediately erupts. Then every minute that follows was like anyone near him was being covered in ash and burning smoke! Between the loud, senseless (except to Clark) rambling and Bozo-the-Clown gesticulations, the only way I knew Christian Slater was there was because Ross was yelling back.

Mind Games not only set up some heavy fireworks, it forced Zahn to throw a grenade at them. And I only speak as one of the early causalities.

I give the series a life span of 6 episodes.
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another one of tim's revisionist moments was his backing season 3 of community seemingly because of his familiarity with those who replaced dan harmon.

I came here and commented 17 minutes in about how insane zahn's character was. went back to watching the show and while I wouldn't say I regret it I would sya the way the show continued on without truly improving in my mind was regrettable.
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I can't argue about Zahn's over-the-topness. But, if you'd stuck around, I think you'd have reason to believe he'll dial back, a bit.

It was explained that his erratic behavior was more due to stress -- stress of being worried he'd let his brother down; stress of not being able to see Beth. Those were both somewhat resolved by the end, so hopefully, he won't be so extreme that he's pulling off people's shoes. I had a REAL hard time with that.
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