- Buy the DVD
Reviewed by Will Harris
iven the way high-profile series come and go at the whims of the network programmers, the phrase “mid-season replacement” doesn’t have the same kind of meaning as it used to. But for whatever reason, this summer really seemed to be filled with new shows that fit that phrase perfectly. NBC suffered swings and misses with both “The Listener” and “The Philanthropist,” and the same thing happened over on ABC with a trio of new hour-longs (“Cupid,” “Defying Gravity,” and “The Unusuals”), leaving viewers once again wondering why the networks had even bothered to provide them with scripted entertainment if all they were planning to do was introduce the series and cancel them just as they were getting interesting.
Fox’s midseason submission, “Mental,” seemed to get particularly harsh treatment from critics, many of whom were easily tempted into writing off the series as a “House” rip-off (the easy argument: if the latter is the body, then the former is the mind), but it’s a lazy diagnosis based predominantly on the fact that they’re both Fox shows about quirky physicians. And that they’re both disease-of-the-week shows. And that they have sexy administrators who favor low-cut blouses.
Oh, all right, so maybe they did have a few similarities. We’re not claiming that “Mental” was necessarily the best new series to turn up this summer, but if you were one of the handful of viewers who happened to catch it, then you already know that, groundbreaking or not, at least it goes down easily enough.
It’s a plot staple of medical-themed TV series to have at least one doctor whose methods seem a bit unorthodox but inevitably work out well in the end, just as that doctor invariably has some personal demon that drives him to do his job. (Shit, that’s another similarity to “House.” Let’s just stop counting them, shall we?) In the case of Dr. Jack Gallagher (Chris Vance), he has a personal tie to the world of mental illness, in that his sister Becky is schizophrenic and, indeed, currently at large, calling him at random times but rarely saying anything and never identifying her whereabouts.
In lieu of being able to help Becky, Jack attempts to help as many other patients as he can, which he does by accepting the offer of Nora Skoff (Annabella Sciorra) to serve as the Director of Mental Health Services at her hospital. The problem – since, of course, there’s always a problem – is that no one but Nora knows anything at all about Jack, and after he arrives and demonstrates his methods, they’re even more skeptical of him than they had been previously. Dr. Veronica Hayden-Jones (Jacqueline McKenzie) is grumpy that Jack got the job over her, but you can’t really blame her for that. Dr. Carl Belle (Derek Webster), however, just plain doesn’t like him. Indeed, Belle wants Jack gone so badly that he’s willing to blackmail first-year resident Dr. Arturo Suarez (Nicholas Gonzalez) over the fact that he falsified his med school transcripts in order to get Arturo to hunt up dirt on Jack. And what of Dr. Chloë Artis (Marisa Ramirez), Arturo’s fellow first-year? Well, in truth, the only character trait of note that she develops is lesbianism. No, seriously, during the course of the entire first season, that’s just about the only thing that we ever learn about her.
As noted, “Mental” isn’t the best medical drama you’ve ever seen – heck, it’s not even the best one on the network – but the cases are generally pretty interesting, and Chris Vance makes the character of Jack pretty darned charming, wringing as much likeability out of a smile and a British accent as anyone could. In particular, it’s nice the way the storyline of Becky is introduced, developed, and basically wrapped up all within the course of the first season. As for the other characters, both Sciorra and McKenzie do fine work, and Gonzalez gets a nice spotlight in “Coda,” where we learn that Arturo’s father plays a doctor on TV, something which – as an actual physician – really grates on Arturo’s nerves. We’ve already noted the lack of development in Chloe, of course, but the character we could really do without is the all-too-villainous Dr. Belle, who rarely seems very competent and seems to exist only to challenge Jack. One gets the impression that Belle is supposed to be the Moriarty to Jack’s Holmes, but it’s a rivalry that grows old quickly.
At present, there has been neither confirmation nor denial that “Mental” will be returning to Fox in the summer of 2010, but given how Season One of the series wraps up, there’s not necessarily any need for it to come back, either. Dr. Jack Gallagher’s predominant storyline was finished in the season’s penultimate episode, and his actions at the end of the finale are in character and thoroughly satisfying, leaving him in a place which feels less like a cliffhanger than a conclusion. Okay, so maybe it’s not what you’d call a happy ending, but at least it’s an ending. And given the chances of seeing “Mental: The Complete Second Season,” we should probably settle for what we can get.
Special Features: Keep your expectations low, people: there are only two pieces of bonus material, and neither is particularly impressive. The first is described as the “unrated alternate pilot,” but the biggest difference that struck me was that one of the characters calls another a dick; the other is a featurette entitled “Paging Dr. Gallagher,” which lasts for all of three minutes and twenty seconds and is little more clips from the show interspersed with a brief bit of discussion by Vance about his character. Given that all 13 episodes were written by Dan and Deborah Joy Levine, you’d think they could’ve at least offered audio commentary on the pilot, but no such luck.