Under a beating New Mexico sun, we’re introduced in the new USA Network drama In Plain Sight to Mary McCormack as Albuquerque-based U.S. Marshal Mary Shannon, dedicated concealer/protector of federal witnesses but personally a not-so-happy grown woman. I have a few clues. Maybe she’s peeved at the trite narration she’s been given to deliver about her life (“It’s been said I don’t always play well with others …”). Or the third-rate hard-boiled dialogue she’s saddled with — like lamely cracking to a wealthy Native American murder suspect about his hilly compound, “Must be a bitch getting pizza delivered up here.” Or the fact that her pain-in-the-ass sister (Nichole Hiltz) and mother (Lesley Ann Warren) feel like dysfunctional-family stereotypes rather than actual people who’d work your nerves. Perhaps she chafes at living in a tonally weird world where a dumb comic subplot about how hard it is for her boss to buy her a birthday present resides uncomfortably next to the seriousness of solving the mutilation murder of a mobster witness’s teenage son and his girlfriend. We see that she has a bickersome relationship with her obnoxiously flirtatious partner (Frederick Weller), but maybe it’s because the strange alchemy of his quirks — knowing multiple languages and arcane facts, seeming aloof yet keen about the job, and being handsome but a failed horn dog — makes him a more interesting character.
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Will someone let Mary McCormack break free of the third-rate hard-boiled dialogue of In Plain Sight?
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Let’s play “pass the cantaloupe”: The gals of Swingtown.
Somewhere in the journey from idea to execution, In Plain Sight got relocated to that less-than-desirable and all-too-populous TV wilderness called Ho-Humville. Blending into the scenery may be the purpose when it comes to spiriting away dangerous figures integral to the justice system, but within the tube universe of cop shows — and even female-driven cop shows, like The Closer — the lackluster In Plain Sight unfortunately calls to mind the joke at the end of Goodfellas, when gangster Henry Hill snidely describes his post-wise-guy life as a federally supervised suburbanite with the line, “I’m an average nobody.”
This didn’t have to be the case. Between the no-brainer suspense of shielding people from those who want them dead, the strange workings of a secretive law-enforcement arm and the built-in drama of forcing citizens to thoroughly upend their lives, In Plain Sight starts with good odds in the character-driven procedural sweepstakes. Plus, McCormack is an actress of appealingly off-kilter rhythms who merits her own series, something adult enough to showcase her erotic intelligence, the way USA’s Burn Notice and its exiled-spy scenario suits star Jeffrey Donovan’s neurotic suavity. But where Burn Notice deftly grinds the juiciest elements of spy craft, private-eye tales and personality comedy into its own rejuvenating genre grab-bag, In Plain Sight already seems tired with its crime-of-the-week, flawed-protagonist self. Welcome to the new life, same as the old life.
There’s not much to say about McCormack’s performance, and that’s just strange, because I know she’s better than this. (If you watched The West Wing, for example, you know this.) Sometimes she gets a charge out of her sexy surliness — she’s leggy, shapely and tough, yet has a fascinatingly awkward slump to her upper half, as if she’s trying to get her shoulders to meet her ears — but most of the time she looks bored. I’m not saying that she has to be given a loopy accent like Kyra Sedgwick on The Closer — or even a loopy, self-destructive streak like Holly Hunter on Saving Grace — to be the new standout badge-wearing babe of basic cable. But in an upcoming episode, when Wendell Pierce from The Wire shows up for a barn-burning turn as a wealthy L.A. ob-gyn turned desertville clinic worker spinning into selfishly rageful fits over his fall from bourgeois grace — never mind that his daughter was traumatized over witnessing the gang slaying of her boyfriend — it doesn’t seem right that McCormack’s central protagonist has to recede into the background so easily. (Though Pierce’s performance came the closest yet to fully realizing the show’s potential.) It’s a writing problem as much as anything, and it could be that McCormack can only give what she’s been given herself. I see myself checking back on In Plain Sight to see if the show and/or McCormack achieve some sort of traction. For now, it just feels like a case of a wonderful actress out in the open but annoyingly hidden from view.
CBS is trying, everyone. Really. The stiff-collared, procedural-heavy and controversy-averse prime-time network is having a summer fling with racy programming by trotting out Swingtown, an hourlong period drama about loose sexual mores that ventures out of the network’s comfort zone of Charlie Sheen cracking slut jokes to an adoring studio audience. Even funnier is the fact that for what is arguably a daringly sex-themed show for any broadcast network to air, CBS was still late enough in the titillation game that the title Wife Swap was already taken, even though Swingtown is actually about open marriages. (Damn you, ABC!) Set in a bicentennial-year suburban Chicago of Harvey Wallbangers, polyester slacks, feathered hair (for both men and women), sailboat wallpaper, Quaaludes, Tab and eight-tracks tapes, Swingtown introduces three marriages/families in various stages of turbulent intimacy: the orgy-hosting Deckers, airline pilot Tom (Grant Show) and his bedroom-eyed wife, Trina (Lana Parrilla); Bruce and Susan Miller (Jack Davenport and Molly Parker), your average upwardly mobile couple whose move to a swanky lakeside community could be more than just a relocation experiment and unwittingly puts them within spit-swapping distance of the predatory Deckers; and the Millers’ longtime pals Janet and Roger Thompson (Miriam Shor and Josh Hopkins), who are aware they might be losing their former neighbors to fireworks beyond the kind their modest July 4 block party can provide.
A quick shot of a chalkboard at the high school that Bruce and Susan’s teenage daughter Laurie attends may show the words “Kierkegaard,” “freedom” and “despair,” but ultimately, Swingtown doesn’t promise anything as era-probing as Mad Men, especially when everyone’s sexual baggage — whether checked or unchecked — isn’t so unusual that it can’t be paired successfully with the soft-rock tunes of the day. The Deckers “host” one of Tom’s much-younger stewardesses to the slinky-voiced Rita Coolidge’s “Higher,” but when committed swinger wife Trina quietly but firmly informs hubby afterward, “Let’s just keep it in our age bracket for a while, okay?” it’s time to cue Seals & Crofts’ “Get Closer.” And when Anaïs Nin–reading Laurie Miller abandons her oppressive stoner boyfriend’s jeep at the beach and jumps into the lake topless, what would that moment be without a little “Go Your Own Way” from Fleetwood Mac?
The FM-infused soundtrack is obviously the central way executive producers Mike Kelley (who created Swingtown) and Alan Poul (who directed the pilot) mean to seduce viewers into accepting their less-than-wholesome scenarios, and, let’s face it, they need any and all weapons when nudity and dirty talk are verboten outside vice-friendly cable. Bodies can be magnificently eviscerated and autopsied elsewhere in prime time — on seemingly every other hour in CBS’s lineup — but a sexy bare buttock or caressed boob is still a sticking point. Which means all Swingtown can do to indicate a basement-lair love-in is play phone-booth packing with the camera frame: a rigidly tight close-up of a man’s face and three female heads squeezing into view where they can. But in a perverse way, this could give Swingtown license to be as lascivious as a precode Hollywood melodrama, all leers and ogles and suggestions and imagination-stirring as the bedroom door closes and we can’t go in. Swingtown is far from a great show, but until it feels obligated to give killjoy lip service to the downside of sexual freedom — note the transformation on Molly Parker’s postcoital face at the end of the pilot — here’s hoping it has its chance to be rompish and fun and a pain in the side of standards and practices.
IN PLAIN SIGHT | USA Network | Sundays, 10 p.m.
SWINGTOWN | CBS | Thursdays, 10 p.m.