Worth a Closer Look

By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 31, 2008

Sassy, brash and agreeably trashy in its way, "In Plain Sight" might easily be shrugged off if not for the casting of feisty Mary McCormack, who portrays a U.S. marshal assigned to the federal witness protection program in the great, or at least telegenic, Southwest.

It's the marshal's job to keep disparate members of an endangered species safe from harm as they begin new lives with appropriated identities. And the series debuts tomorrow night on the USA Network, which once upon a time was a kind of witness protection program itself: Actors could hide out there until a really good offer from a legitimate network came along.

Thanks to such endearing novelties as "Monk," though, USA has earned respectability without sacrificing its raggedy appeal. Whatever effronteries its programs may commit, pretentiousness seems the least likely to rear a hoity-toity head.

Besides, as cable networks became more like broadcast networks, the broadcast networks became more like cable networks. Thus is CBS airing "extreme," bloody and artless martial-arts battles in prime time -- programming with no more dignity than the wrestling matches that used to clog up hours and hours of USA's schedule.

"In Plain Sight" introduces us to Mary Shannon (McCormack), a hardened pro who's resigned to her job rather than delighted with it, yet determined to do it well and with her own sense of style. The plot and subplots of the premiere eventually deteriorate into pandemonium, but McCormack remains the steadying center that makes the show intelligible and, more important, involving. And, perhaps more important still, fun.

On the job, Shannon is that hardy TV perennial, the rule-bending troublemaker whose means are invariably vindicated by her, um, ends. She has the grudging assistance of Fred Weller as Marshall Mann, her partner in crime prevention and so flippantly hip that he could stroll through a gunfight with scarcely a sign of stress. Weller might, in fact, be a trifle too glib and smart-alecky; if he doesn't care what happens next, why should we?

This kind of smugness haunts many a TV and movie genre these days, with major characters laughing off even lethal forms of peril. McCormack keeps the proceedings from proceeding too far in that direction, and yet she makes the most of every funny opportunity that arises from the precarious balancing acts that make up her personal and professional lives.

Among Shannon's amusing nuisances are her mother, the aptly named Jinx, played by Lesley Ann Warren, and her slatternly sister Brandi, perhaps just as aptly named, and nearly as well-played, by Nichole Hiltz. They're a very funny pair of pains in the neck; McCormack's exasperation is deftly tempered by a helpless sort of sympathy, and Warren makes Jinx a very charismatic wreck, genetically incapable, or so it appears, of registering even one iota of regret.

McCormack is able to keep Shannon's audaciousness from seeming rude and self-conscious, whether barging into a men's room to question an unzipped suspect, faking orgasmic noises on her cellphone or warning a woman against shooting her cheating husband in the head and thereby ruining her own life. It's at such moments (as well as during commendably minimal first-person narration) that we get insights into the philosophy of Mary Shannon, especially as regards persons of the opposite sex:

"They lie, they cheat, they start wars," she tells the wronged wife. "They're slobs unless they're gay, and there's precious few of them walking the planet worth putting on lipstick for, let alone throwing your life away." McCormack makes her dialogue not only sing but also dance; the type she's playing is familiar by now, but she casts it in a bright new light.

"In Plain Sight" would amount to very little without an actress of McCormack's talent and temperament in the central role. She has Shannon down pat from Moment One, not that, in her hands, there's anything pat about her.

'Million Dollar Password'

CBS promises that even though its updated version of "Password" has been restyled and remodeled for this bold new century of ours, a future installment will include a visit from "the First Lady of 'Password' herself, Miss Betty White." Famous and probably beloved to post-boomer generations thanks to "Golden Girls" reruns on cable, White is also the widow of Allen Ludden, who hosted "Password" during its various stabs at success in daytime and nighttime hours back in the '60s, '70s and '80s.

Ludden, it turns out, is not precisely irreplaceable, at least in this role: Regis Philbin, one of TV's most entertaining talkers, has been recruited to host the latest incarnation of the game show, proudly titled "Million Dollar Password" because the most proficient and most patient of contestants can work their way up to a jackpot of guess-what-amount.

You don't have to guess, of course. The contestant who survives preliminary rounds "will go on to play for -- One Million Dollars!" Philbin proclaims, not once but seemingly dozens of times during the hour.

The million-dollar pot is but one of several changes made to hype and enliven the game. Gone is the leisurely back-and-forth of the early rounds, when two contestants and their celebrity partners took turns trying to guess the secret word superimposed on the screen before advancing to a "lightning round" of a faster tempo. Hey, we can't have anything "leisurely" in prime time, buddy! It has to all be one big lightning round now, so the show speeds by in a numbness-inducing whiz.

Philbin makes himself comfortable quickly and injects as much of his disarming personality as the drum-tight format will allow, which isn't much. The show is taped in New York, which might be one reason the contestants are considerably less demonstratively demented than those on NBC's hellish "Deal or No Deal," taped in Los Angeles and hosted by onetime cuckoo comic Howie Mandel.

When Mandel is the most decorous and dignified element of any enterprise, you know you're in trouble. Anarchy begins to look cozy and quaint.

There are plenty of cheap tricks played by the producers of "Million Dollar Password," of course. Technical sweetening obviously includes an "awww" button so that we hear a loud communal emission of regret whenever a contestant misses anything. This isn't quite as obnoxious as the "aww-ing" and, more intrusively, "ooh-ing" on Fox's ridiculous "Moment of Truth," a confessional mess wherein virtually anything that a contestant admits to gets a shocked (if simulated) gasp from the artificially enhanced studio audience.

"Password" is a production of FremantleMedia, master craftsmen of artificial realities and faked truths.

Neil Patrick Harris and Rachael Ray are the celebrities on the premiere (tomorrow night at 8), with Harris appearing to be not quite so dense as Ray. At one point, Philbin is extolling the physical attributes of a female contestant and blurts out, "Neil Patrick Harris is taking a second look!" There's a sudden, short hush, and Harris flashes a grin. The "joke" is that Harris, star of the CBS sitcom "How I Met Your Mother," outed himself not so long ago, thus presumably would not be interested in a second look at Ms. Whoever.

If the moment had come across as leeringly or winky-winky cute, it might have been objectionable, but Philbin's ineffable finesse proves disarming once again. All these years on television, and he's still a kind of tyke -- a mischievous presence of guileless delight. The production, with its overstated super-set and flashing lighted graphics, has no class other than that which Philbin brings to it. He saves "Million Dollar Password" from itself.

In Plain Sight (one hour) debuts tomorrow night at 10 on USA; Million Dollar Password (one hour) debuts tomorrow night at 8 on Channel 9 CBS.

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