Americans love cop shows, lawyer shows and doctor shows. There are so many of these shows on TV that producers are always looking for a new twist, an original premise. We've seen all the tough coppers, brilliant lawyers and horny Type A doctors. They've become interchangeable.
Some bright young person working for USA Network had a thought:
I wonder who handles the Witness Protection Program? Wouldn't that be a cool new slant on a cop show? It turns out that The United States Marshal Service is in charge of Witsec, or Witness Security. This is the program that once protected Sammy "The Bull" Gravano from having his nuts smashed into paste by John Gotti's hit men.
I approached this series with a trace of cynicism. Here we go again, I thought, another cop show. I was surprised. The producers have come up with a series that transcends its genre. The reason for its relative excellence is simple: characters. Taken individually the series' stories are good enough to entertain. The overarching drama is about relationships, especially the dysfunctional family relationships of the series' lead character, Inspector Mary Shannon.
Actress Mary McCormack is a genius. Her vision for Mary Shannon's character may have drawn from the original script but she has taken the character that one step beyond: we believe her. We even love her, warts and all. The dialogue has a crisp acerbity; it bites, it has a sharp edge that's fearlessly funny. McCormack has devised a character who cuts like a well honed blade, whose sharp tongue knows few bounds. She says whatever she thinks. If it's cruel, but true, that's just too bad. Her cynical take on life has its roots in her nutcake family. Her father abandoned mom and his daughters when Mary was seven. That early wound seems to ride her like a hell-hound. She still lives with mom and younger sister Brandi. In the first episodes the family dysfunction is in full spate. Mom is drinking and doing embarrassing things. Brandi is committing drug offenses with the Boyfriend From Hell. These are humiliating connections for a law enforcement officer. Mary shows her resentment towards mom and Brandi with a vicious swirl of verbal put-downs and emotionally distancing behavior. If this was the whole story it would be, as we say, BFD. Big Fucking Deal. The dynamic of the series lies in the efforts that everyone makes to heal, to bring the shattered pieces of the family together. They are starting over, each of them in their own unique manner. They don't know how to love and support one another but family is family; it's all they've got. This work is both individual and collective. Mom, played by the redoubtable Lesley Anne Warren, gets sober. She's trying to create self esteem. She works to revive her talents as a singer, dancer, artist. Brandi breaks off with the flaky boyfriend and sincerely works at re-inventing herself. Mary, who is supposed to be the "together" member of the family, rides slightly roughshod over her flaky folks, but she is willing to face her demons with more than a little honesty. She's aware that she lives in a fortress of her own creation. She can't get out, she can't really connect with anyone. We can feel her internal thrashing as she works to escape. We can see it in the whipsaw jerking of her head and the sideways glance of her eyes. As an actress, McCormack has mastered her character's body language. She's good; she's really good.
Mary's law enforcement partner is played by Frederick Weller. His character's name is Marshall Mann. Hence, he is, to everyone's amusement, Marshal Marshall Mann.
If there is ever another Star Trek series, I can imagine Weller being snapped up to play a major role. He is that rare creature, a ballsy geek. He looks extra terrestrial. He quotes Goethe and exotic mathematicians. He likes to talk, and his talk with his partner Mary is an art form. Mary is the only person on earth who enjoys hearing Marshall talk. When she needs him to shut up, she tells him. He complies with perfect equanimity. It's an expression of profound trust and friendship. While Mary struggles with her sweet boyfriend Raphael, it's Marshall who provides the perspective of a de facto soul mate. They are cop partners. They are also best friend partners and each is the primary relationship of the other. The love they project is one of the binding elements of the series. Each would sacrifice their life to save the other. That's how deep the love is.
At intervals in each episode, Mary does a voice-over narration. She tells us what she's thinking, what she's learned about life from the featured witness of the story. These are not sappy snippets of new age wisdom. These are the world-weary but transforming observations of a seasoned sufferer of the human condition.
I love the voice-overs. I look forward to them. They're beautiful pieces of writing and they provide useful insights into my own problems. I can take them to bed, think about them for days or weeks, apply them to my own life. That's a pretty good payoff to get from a TV cop series.
Each episode begins with the commission of a major crime. By design, mischance or coincidence, there's a witness or witnesses to the crime. The action quickly segues to Albuquerque. This is the location of Shannon and Mann's Witsec field office. It seems that the Witness Protection Program has a fondness for the Southwest. It also serves to pull us away from the tired old environs of New York or Los Angeles. We get Latinos, Native Americans, rednecks, desert, mountains and a whole lotta space.
The U.S. Marshals must function as counselors, social workers and warriors on behalf of their witnesses. They may like or may as easily loathe the witnesses in their care. It doesn't matter. Duty is duty. Marshalls Shannon and Mann are good cops. In Plain Sight is a damn good show. Three seasons are in the can, and I hope another two or three seasons are on the way. I would hate to see the writers get tired or bored and fail to take their material seriously. The series deserves the best from its producers. Its warmth and humanity make it a stand-out on American television.