Mental: Series Premiere

[26 May 2009]

By Cynthia Fuchs

PopMatters Film and TV Editor

Head Honcho

Dr. Jack Gallagher (Chris Vance) arrives in L.A. with baggage. Most obviously, he has to deal with the whole House business. He’s British and shrewd and supercilious, a doctor whose team includes multi-ethnic residents with their own issues to work out and a supervisor, Nora Skoff (Annabella Sciorra, who most definitely deserves better than a character with that last name), with whom he shares a rudimentary sexual tension. It doesn’t help either that he’s quirky and articulate, rides his bike to work and has what one observer terms a “seriously smoking body” that he displays in full during the first five minutes of Mental.

This last serves a couple of purposes: first, it produces a cell-phone video that circulates on the closed-circuit net at Wharton Memorial, the hospital that houses the “high volume psychiatric facility” Jack is now running (thus inciting gossip and doubt as to his “qualifications”). Second, it shows just how dedicated he is to his patients. As Nora instructs the seeming goody-two shoes Veronica (Jacqueline McKenzie), his striptease and immersion in the delusion of a schizophrenic patient off his meds shows that “In that moment Jack didn’t care about anything but the patient, not propriety, not professionalism, not ridicule.” As Veronica gapes, her letter of resignation in front of her, Nora—a self-identified Harvard Business School graduate—concludes, “That‘s why I hired him.”

Of course it is. The other experience Jack carries is vaguely more personal: Nora notes his work at a veterans’ post-traumatic stress clinic—in Killington, Vermont, no less, about as far from Los Angeles on the imaginative map as you might get. And he has a sister, Becky (Amanda Douge), who so far has only registered as someone who breathes on the other end of his phone line. Her calls repeatedly bring Jack to his feet, no matter where he is, suggesting that he is deeply invested in her communications and that she will become a more visible form of baggage eventually, you know, like Susan Lewis’ sister Chloe did on ER.

All this background drives Jack to be empathetic and irreverent, in search of new and creative ways to treat his patients, who are, after all, trusting him and his team to save them “from themselves.” He takes this responsibility very earnestly, as he explains during one of those standard-doctor-show board meetings where young team members look excited and scoffers scoff. “Unlocking the mysteries of the human brain is no easy game,” he begins, while shuffling a deck of cards in preparation for a rather elaborate card trick. “So why not use every possible resource? Experiment? Break the mold? Use every trick in the book? Not to mention every cliché. “Anything that gives us an edge,” he proclaims. That his show here involves a deck full of jokers is a little cute, but jeez, he’s so passionate!

Jack is one of those evangelizing TV-show doctors, willing his compatriots and underlings to believe in him. It helps that he’s proven right again and again. It also helps that he’s a good manipulator, quick to see the right buttons to push: one doctor wants her clinic funded, another wants his ego rubbed, and the two residents didn’t even know they wanted to get out and about until Jack gives them investigation assignments… these on top of his own adventures, say, breaking and entering into a patient’s home in order to find inevitably crucial background on his disease. “What’s next?” complains Nora after she bails him out, “Scaling the Hollywood sign or celebrity stalking? You’re a hospital department head: you don’t make house calls!”

Wrong. Jack most emphatically makes house calls. He breaks rules. He suggests they try all kinds of alternative treatments in order to stabilize a patient before changing a drug regimen, his list antic and self-consciously delightful: “Megavitamins,” he muses, “neuro-feedback, acupuncture, homeopathic remedies, juggling tomatoes, whatever works” (including three-legged races that pair doctors with patients, to induce “trust” all round).  His cohorts roll their eyes, as they must. Jack delivers to every brilliant-offbeat doctor expectation, which means that for all his hyper-performative charms, Jack is also tedious, right down to the zipper in his forehead that marks commercial breaks.

As if Jack’s jaunts aren’t enough, Mental also offers up a most mundane means of showing patient symptoms, with wide-angle shots and warpy visions, big close-ups of sweaty brows and careening frames, files with diagnoses highlighted for those of us who can’t keep up with the explanatory dialogue, and, no surprise, hallucinations (monsters with tails, happy family scenes in too-bright colors).  All these images reinforce Jack’s rightness, reducing his judgments to creepy cartoonish visions.

It’s too bad, too, because the show has options. Jack’s own history with the veterans’ clinic is surely timely, as are his tensions with old-school analysts and profits-minded pharmacologists, or his respect for little kid extras. If these possibilities seem promising, Mental is plainly struggling with its baggage.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/93879-mental/