Steve Zahn, left, Christian Slater and Jaime Ray Newman in "Mind Games."
By Rob Owen / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Several midseason series launched in January -- and some have already failed, including ABC's "Killer Women" -- but others waited until the end of the Winter Olympics to debut.
That includes two ABC entries, "Mind Games," debuting tonight, and "Mixology," premiering Wednesday.
When: 10 tonight, ABC.
Starring: Christian Slater, Steve Zahn.
Writer Kyle Killen comes up with smart, thoughtful TV show premises that have yet to latch onto a large enough audience to stay on the air. His previous efforts were Fox's 2010 flop "Lone Star" and NBC's 2012 effort "Awake." Both shows carried themes of duality (a Texan leading a double life; a cop who wakes up one day in a world where his wife survived an accident and on the next day his wife is dead and his child survived), and there's a hint of that in a new series about two brothers.
Structurally, "Mind Games" is his most accessible, mainstream TV series yet. But it's still not the easiest show to watch.
Brothers Clark (Steve Zahn, "Treme") and Ross (Christian Slater) open an agency that specializes in using observational and psychological techniques to try to manipulate others, shape opinion and change a "no" response to a "yes."
The main case in the premiere involves trying to convince an insurance company that has already denied treatment to an ailing boy to change its mind. The team, which includes several co-workers and, maybe just for the first episode due to recasting, Ross' ex-wife, goes through several schemes to use "Jedi mind tricks" on those in the insurance company's decision-making hierarchy.
Both brothers carry baggage: Clark, a former university professor and human behavior expert, has bipolar disorder. Ross, a schemer, was recently paroled from prison for securities fraud. The brothers have a bit of a yin and yang scenario going on: Clark is the hyperactive dreamer; Ross reins him in and tries to find practical applications for Clark's theories.
Viewers may find Clark exhausting. He's a whirling dervish of ideas that he vomits out without any sense of how they are received by those he interacts with. The amount of yelling in this pilot puts ABC's also voluble sitcom "The Goldbergs" to shame, which didn't seem possible just a few months ago.
"Mind Games" tries to explain the science behind its premise in logical ways that hide the need for gobs of exposition, but, wow, there is an awful lot of yammering going on in this first episode (about "adrenalized implantation" and other psychological theories).
At its heart, "Mind Games" is a case-of-the-week procedural with some serialized elements, but it's so dense with chatter there may be no mind tricks strong enough to convince viewers to stay tuned.
When: 9:30 p.m. Wednesday, ABC.
Starring: Blake Lee, Vanessa Lengies.
Created and executive produced by Jon Lucas and Scott Moore, the guys responsible for the first "Hangover" movie, ABC's "Mixology" (9:30 p.m. Wednesday, WTAE) is a pleasant surprise.
It's another one of those high-concept, large-cast shows that ABC executives love to put on the air and more often than not fail. And this one might, too, but qualitatively, it's significantly funnier than other, recent single-camera ABC comedies (e.g. "Back in the Game," "Family Tools," etc.).
All 13 episodes in the first season take place over the course of one night in a bar as 10 20-somethings in search of love or sex mix and mingle. On paper that sounds like a potential recipe for disaster -- how do you get to care about characters in such a short period of time, let alone in a hook-up setting? -- but the show's writers effectively use flashbacks to deepen the characters.
Tom (Blake Lee), the most relatable, likable character, was recently dumped by his fiancee ("Like, looking at your face makes me want to barf," she tells him in flashback). So he's out at the bar with buddies Cal (Craig Frank) and wise-cracking Bruce (Andrew Santino).
Tom works up his courage to approach beautiful, out-of-his-league Maya (Ginger Gonzaga), which is when "Mixology" offers her backstory. She's brutal, which makes for some funny, character-revealing dialogue ("How is a person ever supposed to improve if you don't point out their weaknesses to them?" she says).
Maya's engaged friend, Liv (Kate Simses), gets all fluttery when she meets failed entrepreneur Ron (Adam Campbell, "Harper's Island") and considers cheating on fiance Jim (David Clayton Rogers).
Single mom Jessica (Alexis Carra) bonds with her sister, Janey (Sarah Bolger), who disappears after the pilot (a long bathroom break, perhaps?) to be replaced by Jessica's childhood friend, Fab (Frankie Shaw).
And then there's waitress Kacey (Vanessa Lengies, "Glee"), who's sleeping with man-of-few-words bartender Dominic (Adan Canto, "The Following").
The mix of characters works well and provokes a fair number of laughs. In episode two, narration by Bruce notes, "Liv and Jim liked scrapbooking, cheese and the entire CBS comedy lineup: Once again, she made the safe choice, but deep down she longed for something more."
There is a potential problem for "Mixology": ABC once again programs a show about a niche demographic (young, hip people) after mainstream hit "Modern Family." That approach didn't work for "Happy Endings" or "Don't Trust the B-- in Apartment 23," and it seems unlikely to work for "Mixology," which is tonally similar to those two funny but failed comedies.
Why does ABC keep making this mistake? To hear ABC Entertainment president Paul Lee tell it, it's all about giving "Mixology" the largest possible lead-in the network has to offer, which is "Modern Family," regardless of the mismatch.
"When you have a great show like 'Mixology,' its best chance is there," Mr. Lee said in January at the winter TV critics press tour in Pasadena, Calif. "We want to make sure it has its best chance of getting out of the gate and doing well. It's not impossible. I mean, it's certainly true that the younger shows didn't get a wide enough audience for us, but there are examples back through the last few decades of television, and 'Friends' is the best example, where we have a 20s, sort of dating comedy that can have a wider appeal. And we were always frustrated that "Happy Endings" got so near to it but never quite got there. ... So overall, hard decision, but that's the one that we made, and we're sticking with it."
At least until the ratings for "Mixology" come in the day after it premieres.
TV writer Rob Owen: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-2582. Read the Tuned In Journal blog at post-gazette.com/tv. Follow RobOwenTV on Twitter or Facebook.
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