Someone will wake up tomorrow to a new life. New identity, town, and job, but the same memories. The idea may sound appealing, until the caveat is revealed — he can never again have contact with anyone he knows now. Oh, and someone is trying to kill him.
Such is the experience of those entering the Federal Witness Protection Program. Some of these individuals are turning against their erstwhile cohorts in crimes, but others are just poor slobs who happened to see or overhear the wrong thing. Regardless of their backstories, they must rely on agents like Mary Shannon (Mary McCormack) to make the transition to their new lives and to stay alive long enough to make the transition.
Herein lies the foundation of USA’s latest crime series, In Plain Sight, which follows Mary as she not only works with such federal witnesses, but also deals with the complexities of her own personal life. At first glance, this concept appears tired, recalling other TV shows and characters, but once it refocuses its storytelling — away from introducing basic elements — it turns unique and engrossing.
Each episode of the show reveals Mary’s efforts to help a new individual or family enter the program. In the opening sequences, viewers learn the circumstances that led to protected witness status, after which the focus shifts to Mary’s challenges in balancing the needs of her new charges with the drama of her dysfunctional family. Naturally, Mary doesn’t work alone, relying on her partner Marshall (Frederick Weller), a walking encyclopedia of useless trivia, and her boss Stan (Paul Ben-Victor), a man so inept and spineless that it stretches credibility to believe he’s maintained his position of authority.
Impeding her success on the job, however, is her deadbeat mother, Jinx (Lesley Ann Warren), and just-returned home sister, Brandi (Nichole Hiltz). Both women place partying as their top priority, and neither is gainfully employed, depending on Mary to take care of them. Jinx’s venture into the work world comes as a door-to-door make-up salesperson, and ends after a single $7.50 sale of an eyeliner pencil. Brandi, on the other hand, arrives with a suitcase filled with cocaine and a secret arrangement with her boyfriend back in Boston to stash it until the time comes to sell.
Even in this setting up, the premiere episode creates two obstacles for its own future. First, the structure is immediately reminiscent of another USA series, Burn Notice, even down to the witty voiceovers. Like Notice‘s Michael (Jeffrey Donovan), Mary must deal with a wisecracking associate, an irritating mother who favors her sibling, a sibling with ties to the drug trade, and a shaky love life. Viewers learn just how empty her romantic life is when, after having some afternoon delight with boy toy Raph (Christian de la Fuente), Mary is secretly disappointed that he begs off coming to her birthday party, using the excuse that their relationship is physical, and having been intimate already that day, he has nothing else to offer her.
Also similar to Notice, in the pilot episode, Mary’s personality appears to alternate between kick-ass toughness and tenderness with such frequency that it is almost dizzying. Without transition between the two dimensions, Mary is suddenly in full-blown Rambo mode, then just as suddenly playing Mother Teresa. Missing is the slow brewing of anger that leads to her vengeance or any sign of empathy that might lead her to comfort those around her.
The second major problem of the pilot episode is its lack of concentration on the victims. Mary is dealing with two new cases, an underdeveloped story of a young woman from the Ukraine who must testify against her syndicate bosses, and the primary story of a mob hitman whose son has been murdered after the hitman’s former associates track him down. The emphasis on solving the murder leaves little time to get to know the witnesses being protected, whose experiences are plainly more interesting than the more run-of-the-mill investigation plot.
By Episode Two (“Hoosier Daddy”), however, the problems of the pilot appear to have been resolved. Mary is a far more stable character, showing a consistent softer side throughout the second and third episodes… although it it’s still evident that she is not a person to be messed with. Her idiosyncrasies (keeping a running tally of the day’s tasks in her piece-of-crap car, a general dislike of children [“What’s the deal with babies? I don’t get ’em.”]) remain intact, but the episodes focus more attention on Mary’s primary task, acclimating new members to the program, rather than on her frankly too typical zeal for justice.
Consequently, greater consideration is given to the plight of those Mary is assigned to protect. In the second episode, she’s assigned a 10-year-old boy, menaced by his drug-dealing father, who murdered the boy’s mother in front of him; the third episode (“Iris Doesn’t Live Here Anymore”) centers on a prideful father who can’t forgive his teenaged daughter for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, resulting in the family losing all the comforts of their upper-class life. Allowing viewers to know more of the personalities and fears of Mary’s charges leads to a greater investment in their stories. That both episodes have an unexpected twist mid-story also keeps interest high, although the “shocking turn of events” device may become tiresome if used repeatedly.
The series further benefits from a subtle sense of humor. Not played strictly for laughs, à la USA’s Psych, the jokes come in small doses and seemingly incidental dialogue. Take, for instance, Mary’s phone exchange with her sister in Episode Three:
Mary: What are you doing right now?
Brandi [who is reading a magazine]: Cleaning the kitchen. I’m about to wash the floor.
Mary: You know, for a congenital liar, you really suck at it.
Brandi: Was “washing the floor” too much?
Mary: You lost me at “cleaning.”
Exchanges such as this, most taking place between Mary and Marshall, do little to advance the plot, but instead, they develop character and keep the mood from becoming too mired in discord. With this shaded tone and careful plotting going for it, In Plain Sight is a welcome addition to USA’s line-up of detective shows. Especially when it keeps focused on the new places and new identities, rather than the old memories.