TV Preview: 'Mental' With Chris Vance

By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 26, 2009

"Mental" is low-rental, which makes more sense than it would seem because the show is basically a wobbly imitation of "House," the airtight medical drama that made a star of Hugh Laurie in the title role. By some wild coincidence, "Mental" is also built around an unorthodox mavericky doctor, but it probably won't make a star of anybody. It's unlikely to win lots of converts, either.

This time the nonconforming doc is a psychiatrist named Jack Gallagher (Chris Vance). Unfortunately, Gallagher's most noticeable trait is a smug, smirky smile that could curdle milk, or any other perishable dairy product, and gives the unsavory impression that Jack just told himself a dirty joke that no one else heard.

He's supposed to be the epitome of cool, so when he arrives for his first day on the job at a spiffy mental health clinic in Los Angeles (where there should be one on every block) and is confronted by guest patient Vincent Martin, a wild-eyed kook who runs around naked, Dr. Jack strips, too, just to make Martin feel comfortable. And everybody else nauseated.

The doctor is one cool guy, though. He dresses cool, talks cool, has this really cool kitchen (with a green-brick wall), rides a cool bicycle from his home to the clinic (that must come in handy during emergencies) and in the sacred cause of helping a patient whom no one else understands, doubles as a second-story man. He nimbly shimmies up a wall and smashes a window to gain entry to the patient's house, making the doctor a home-wrecker in the dreariest sense of the term.

Most of those working at the clinic seem to be on the downtrodden side until jolly Dr. Merry-Mac saunters in. Suddenly they all want to pitch in and work again, or at least pitch in and argue with the doctor. Noticeably skeptical, however, is the hospital's cold-as-ice administrator, Nora Skoff (Annabella Sciorra, dressed to look like Tina Fey), who hounds and pesters mavericky Jack in exactly the way administrators have been hounding and pestering mavericks through decades and decades of lame TV dramas (and some good ones, too -- "House," for instance).

The one distinguishing gimmick to the drama is that viewers sometimes get to see the world through the confused eyes of the patients, be they manic or depressive, in need of Mellaril or Elavil. The cases, though, tend to be of the cutesy nature; the naked man imagines people around him have lizard eyes, lizard tongues and lizard tails, while an old codger who "doesn't know how to let go" has 20 cats living in his house (not shown -- how's that for cheap production?) and several dead ones "buried" in the freezer.

No, it is definitely not cute to hoard animals, as occasional news stories make clear. But the writers of "Mental" portray this patient as if it were, and as if his only real problem is that of being a misunderstood darling who just needs a kitty-cuddle. On a future episode, Dr. Jack meets a woman suffering a hysterical pregnancy, and this seems to be played partly for laughs, too. As if to elicit giggles, the director goes in for grotesque close-ups of the woman's husband, who appears to have encouraged her in her delusion; but what are those goofy close-ups supposed to say?

In tonight's premiere, one patient recovers lickety-split and the next thing we see is, literally, light at the end of a tunnel. Whoa, boy; that's more cornily literal than anything about mental illness seen in such prehistoric films as Alfred Hitchcock's "Spellbound." But "Mental" -- whose recurring visual motif is a man's forehead being closed and opened with a zipper -- isn't really about maladies of the mind; it's about derelictions of duty by producers.

The parts of the show that don't seem recycled from previous medical dramas seem recycled from previous crime dramas, with just a few changes of vernacular and gadgetry. Life is much too short to endure cliches like these more than twice, much less, depending on one's age, two or three dozen times.

Mental (one hour) premieres tonight at 9 on Channel 5.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company