What's in a face?

Original prime-time programming on cable has come so far in terms of quality and pizzazz that it's hard to remember when every channel's schedule seemed to consist of I Love Lucy reruns. And nowhere is the improvement more praiseworthy than on USA Network.

Tony Shalhoub's Monk (back for its seventh season July 18) is classic TV in the making; Psych (also returning July 18) is consistently quirky and entertaining; and the stylish Burn Notice (new episodes begin July 10) just may be my favorite show of the moment. Meanwhile, on TNT, between Kyra Sedgwick in The Closer (returning June 18) and Holly Hunter in Saving Grace, we are witnessing the evolution of the strong, conflicted, heroic female lead character as the engine that propels an entire series.

So now comes In Plain Sight starring Mary McCormack, whom I remember from that grand but underappreciated '90s drama Murder One, though you may know her from her roles on The West Wing and ER. Premiering at 10 p.m. Sunday on USA with an elongated 76-minute showcase episode, In Plain Sight combines the I-am-woman-watch-me-roar factor of TNT's finest hours with a plum cable time slot.

Regrettably, however, like the people in the federal witness protection program it dramatizes, this show desperately needs to assume a fresh identity. Unlike Hunter, whose portrayal of Grace Hanadarko proves that a starring female character on TV need not be likable to be successful (a rather revolutionary concept, actually) if she has chutzpah and flair, McCormack's depiction of U.S. Marshal Mary Shannon is unlikable with virtually no redeeming virtue. And since her partner, Marshall (a marshal named Marshall, how clever, played by Frederick Weller) and her boss (Paul Ben-Victor), have the depth and complexity of cellophane, it's left to Mary to carry the program. It's a heavy, heavy load.

Shot entirely on location in Albuquerque, N.M., In Plain Sight follows Mary and Marshall as the hands-on guardians of government witnesses relocated to the Land of Enchantment and given new lives and identities. They come in all shapes, sizes and ages, but they have one thing in common: Someone wants them killed as payback. For Mary's part, she seems to be mad all the time: mad at the system that forces innocent people into her care, perturbed by Marshall, infuriated by her jump-on-again, jump-off-again boyfriend (Cristian de la Fuente) and definitely pissed off at her bed-hopping, needy mother (the return of Lesley Ann Warren) and emotionally brittle sister (Nichole Hiltz) with secrets to hide. The opening episodes of any series are the time for viewers to get to know the key players; there's a layer of superficiality here that, combined with dialogue that tries too hard to be clever, makes getting to know any member of the cast difficult. What little you do discover, you're not likely to enjoy.

Recurring "Nightmare": It's creepy and still kooky, mysterious and spooky. But is the revamped version of Wolfman Mac's Nightmare Sinema, the local weekend horror-movie series that returned to WMYD-TV/Channel 20 May 17, still altogether ooky in the view of the Bay City company that claims it created the show?

Nightmare Sinema went off the air in April for retooling after Darkhaus Sound & Film president Glenn Kirkland asked WMYD to cease running the show until it could reach a compensation settlement with Mac Kelly, the program's host and producer. Kelly's response was to remove all creative elements that Darkhaus potentially could lay claim to and replace them with original material.

"Nightmare Sinema flows better, there's no more hyperkinetic editing, we've got a new theme song, and it's more upbeat," says Kelly. "Nothing of Glenn's work is involved. Sadly, the dispute is far from over. Glenn continues to post defamatory content about me and the show [on the Internet] every week, which is a shame. I have also received threats against me."

Counters Kirkland: "Darkhaus went into this venture with Mac Kelly as 50-50 partners. We were going to remain mostly in the background. He wanted to be a famous horror-show host and we wanted to be a well-established production house. Well, whatever happens now, he got what he wanted, and our end of the bargain remains open to interpretation. He screwed us."

Kirkland is reviewing tapes of the new version of Nightmare Sinema before deciding how to proceed. In more ways than one, the nightmare continues.

Jim McFarlin is a media critic for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]

About The Author

Jim McFarlin

Jim McFarlin, former media and entertainment critic for the Metro Times and The Detroit News, is an award-winning journalist whose work has appeared in People, USA Today, Black Enterprise, HOUR Detroit, and many other publications. His latest book, The Booster, about the decline and fall of U-M’s Fab Five, is...
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