There’s a great story to FOX’s “Mental,” specifically the story of how the show made it on the air at all.
No, that isn’t a derisive, “Geez, how did this dreck get on TV!” comment. It’s actually completely in earnest. “Mental” was a rejected TNT pilot that became an international co-production shot at the Fox Telecolombia production facilities in Bogota. When TV networks talk about finding new business models, “Mental” is one example of a viable alternative pipeline. Because its bottom-line cost to FOX is negligible and the network is using the show as scripted filler in the summer months, it hardly even matters if “Mental” is successful, though if it does well, you can be assured we’ll be seeing much more of this.
“Mental,” which FOX is premiering on Tuesday (May 26) night, is one possible glimpse into TV’s future.
But if you don’t know the details behind its production or if, for very justifiable reasons, you don’t care about the details behind its production, “Mental” becomes a good deal less interesting in a hurry. It’s a subgeneric medical drama with dull characters, unengaging performances and dismal production values.
[A review of “Mental,” not its production process, after the break.]
At its heart, “Mental” is a pretty straight-forward Vocational Irony Narrative. “Prison Break” veteran Chris Vance plays Dr. Jack Gallagher, the new Director of Psychiatric Services for a “Los Angeles” hospital. But Jack, with his unorthodox methods and upside-down version of the world may be just as crazy as his patients, which may be what makes him so good at his job.
Actually, Jack isn’t really all that crazy. His wacky style is only outside-of-the-norm if you compare him to the other doctors at the hospital, who are all more busy with bureaucracy and professional advancement than practicing medicine.
Because Jack is a fairly upbeat character, and because Vance is allowed to speak with his native British accent, he isn’t exactly Dr. House, nor would you have to necessarily say that Annabella Sciorra’s Nora Skoff, the hospital administrator, is his Cuddy (though she is). The other supporting roles are limited and co-star Nicholas Gonzalez, Marisa Ramirez, Derek Webster and Jacqueline McKenzie are mostly restricted by playing variations on rolling their eyes at the audacity of Dr. Gallagher.
Series creators Deborah Joy Levine and Dan Levine haven’t mastered the art of showing viewers, rather than telling them, so the first two episodes spend a lot of time on characters explaining symptoms and diagnoses and courses of treatment, just in case viewers might otherwise lump in every patient as “nuts” and every solution as “drugs and therapy.” “House” does the same thing, but with more panache, or at least with more movement, which suggests the problem is one of direction as much as dialogue. The excessively expositional nature of the writing is deadly when the patient-of-the-week is generic (like Silas Weir Mitchell’s struggling artist in the premiere) and crippling when there’s actually an original patient (Nicholle Tom’s hysterical pregnancy in the second episode).
And the characters relate to each other in this same over-declarative fashion, which is how we know that Sciorra’s character had cancer or that Ramirez’s character is a lesbian or that McKenzie’s character is married to a jazz musician. The only new character to this environment is Vance’s, yet they all relate to each other as strangers, which is just about the worst writing sin in a workplace drama. You either write in a way that establishes pre-existing dynamics, or you have the characters saying how they relate to each other in the dialogue. the Levines are stuck in the latter mode.
With a show this flatly rendered, there’s no room for visual flourishes of any kind, so the semi-inspiration that might have stood out as the show’s best gimmick comes across as a rarely used, poorly delivered affectation instead. I’m referring to the visualization of the patients’ points-of-view, the manifestations of their disorders. So a character afraid of the water is seen adrift in an ocean of towering waves. Or when a delusional paranoid patient comes in, we see the snake-creatures he imagines everybody else to be. It isn’t such a bad idea at all, but the execution is dreadful.
Viewers who don’t know the backstory of how “Mental” came to be produced won’t instantly look at the show and yell, “That’s not LA, it’s Bogota!”
Instead, there’s a sense of lingering unease that comes from watching “Mental.” It’s partially that the hospital set is darker, older and less TV-condusive than what viewers have come to expect from “House” or “Scrubs” or “E.R.” or “Grey’s Anatomy.” The scripts give no indication that the doctors are working in anything less than a state-of-the-art facility, but maybe they’re stuck in a ghetto hospital and they can’t admit it to themselves (the dialogue gives the script a location that’s at odds with its physical geography). Viewers will notice the cheapness of the sets and the video quality, but they’ll only infer the difference in light between Colombia and Los Angeles (part of the reason shows filmed in LA substitute poorly for New York and why shows show in Vancouver substitute poorly for nearly everywhere, because light quality is unique to physical locations). Some viewers will also notice that in crowd or group or outside city scenes, all of the extras are very obviously Latino, but they’re South American in appearance, not Mexican or Caribbean, and that none of those extras ever have dialogue.
No matter how many of the creative handicaps you notice and how many you just perceive in the back of your mind, “Mental” doesn’t feel like a network TV show and it doesn’t feel up to the standards of a TNT, USA or FX basic cable show either. It’s a telenovela version of an American medical show that just happens to feature English-speaking actors and that doesn’t have the guilty pleasure qualities of a telenovela. Business-wise, “Mental” may be a sign of hope for the industry, but quality-wise, it’s just another summer dump.
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