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"Since 1970, the Federal Witness Protection Program has relocated thousands of witnesses, some criminal, some not, to neighborhoods all across the country. Every one of those individuals shares a unique attribute distinguishing them from the rest of the general population, and that is…Somebody wants them dead."
I don't know about the rest of you but these short season dramas are starting to grow on me. Most of the twenty-four episode seasons have a lot of filler thrown in while the writers get their collective shit together. With twelve episodes, though, you can generally map the whole season out, avoiding the last-minute retcons necessary to pull everything together. In Plain Sight debuted on the USA Network last year to the biggest ratings in the network's history. Now, with the second season premiere set for April 19, Universal has brought us In Plain Sight: Season One. Does the release warrant the court's protection, or does it get kicked to the curb?
Facts of the Case
U.S. Marshall Mary Shannon (Mary McCormack, The West Wing) works in the Albuquerque office of the Federal Witness Security Program (WITSEC). It's not an easy job, as not even family is allowed to know that she is involved with the WITSEC.
With more issues than The Washington Post, Mary has a no-nonsense attitude, protecting her charges with an intensity that would make a Mama Bear go "Damn, woman, take a Zanax!" Her partner and best friend, Marshall (Fred Weller), is something of a calming, yet annoying influence. When she isn't working, Mary tries to sort out her personal life, playing surrogate mother to her own mother, Jinx (Lesley Ann Warren, Victor/Victoria), who moved in after her apartment building burned down. As if her life wasn't complicated enough, her little sister Brandi (Nichole Hiltz, The Riches) has shown up from New Jersey for an "extended visit," and is developing a troubling closeness with Mary's sort-of boyfriend Raph (Cristián de la Fuente, CSI: Miami), a minor league ballplayer on the verge of being called up to the majors. What Mary doesn't know may literally kill her—Brandi has a suitcase with about twenty pounds of crystal meth that belongs to her drug-running boyfriend.
Yeah, this is going to end well.
You get all twelve episodes on three discs:
• "Pilot": When the teenage son of one of Mary's witnesses, a mafia hit man, is murdered, Mary has 24 hours to find the killer before the hit man father takes matters into his own hands. Oh, and it's her birthday.
• "Hoosier Daddy": A few years ago the eight-year-old son of a drug trafficker was brought into the program; Mary arranges for another family in the program to adopt him, but then the father is released and sues for custody—meaning that the boy must be brought out of hiding for the hearing.
• "Never the Bride": Mary reluctantly becomes maid of honor for one of her protectees (Missi Pyle, Galaxy Quest)—a con artist on the run from diamond smugglers.
• "Trojan Horst": Mary and Marshall are ambushed while transporting a witness (Dave Foley, News Radio) who can identify one of the nation's top hit men.
• "Who Shot Jay Arnstein?": Circumstances once forced Mary to bring an artist, his wife (Sherry Stringfield, ER), and his mistress into the program. When the artist is shot shortly after the wife finds out about the mistress, Mary has a serious problem.
• "High-Priced Spread": The younger brother of a protectee has a gambling problem—and he's a high school basketball star.
• "Iris Doesn't Live Here Anymore": When a teenager witnesses a gang shooting, the entire family must be brought into the program.
• "Don of the Dead": A deeply religious couple in the program has managed to rebuild their lives, with but one small problem—now they can't stand each other.
• "Good Cop, Dead Cop": Mary has a one-night stand with an ex-cop witness, who is subsequently charged with a cop's murder.
• "To Serge With Love": Marshall and Mary are glad that one of their witnesses has a new boyfriend—until they find out that he's in the program as well. Meanwhile, Brandi's boyfriend ropes her into delivering drugs for him.
• "Stan By Me": Mary's professional and private lives collide when she is abducted by two masked men who mistake her for Brandi. The entire season has built up to this episode.
• "A Fine Meth": Mary returns home to learn that it was her sister that caused the incident—and that her career is in jeopardy as a result.
Mary McCormack's younger brother Will is featured in the last two episodes as the FBI agent in charge of the case.
After the first few episodes, the show looked like just another variant on a basic formula—cop show, good-looking-yet-tomboyish lead, witty banter with partner, annoying relatives…kind of like crossing Police Woman with Everybody Loves Raymond. After a few more episodes, though, some new patterns emerged, and it became evident that there was more to this show than meets the eye.
Let's start with the basic structure. Each show begins with a brief scene introducing the witness, showing how they ended up in the program—basically, a quick, effective hook into the story. As the episode proceeds, Mary has to manage family issues alongside her professional ones. The witness stories are thought out well, focusing on the emotional strain—and in some cases the renewed sense of freedom—inherent in being in WITSEC. Here's the thing, though: While the A-plot—the witness—gets most of the screen time, it's the B-plot—the family stuff—that does the heavy lifting. That's where we find out who Mary is. Along about midseason, the B-plots start to coalesce into a narrative arc that leads to the last three episodes, which feature some of the most harrowing moments you're likely to see on network television.
Make no mistake—this is Mary McCormack's show from start to finish. Thankfully, she's more than up to the task, delivering a richly nuanced performance. In some cases, its little things, like the silly-smug-goofy look she gets whenever someone mentions that she's hot (yes, she is), in some cases it's the delivery of a line, such as when she thanks Marshall by telling him, "I love you like an eight-dollar whore." Sometimes she bares her soul. In "High Priced Spread," she accompanies a witness to a Gambler's Anonymous meeting; listening to others' stories brings back memories of her childhood and her father's sudden departure, and she's suddenly, unexpectedly forced to face how much it has shaped her, causing her to flee, sobbing, to the security of her car. And there's the last two episodes, about which all I'll say is: Damn.
The supporting cast is a mixed bag. It takes a while, but Nicole Hiltz turns Brandi into more than just an empty-headed blonde; her best work is the developing friendship with Mary's boyfriend; it's one of the few times that Brandi lets her guard down. Really, though, the only cast member who can hang with McCormack is Lesley Ann Warren. Both Jinx and Brandi have been marked by their inability to manage without Mary, but it's far worse for Jinx—she is, technically, the mother. Hell, most of the time Brandi acts more responsibly than Jinx (Who the hell names a kid "Jinx"?). In the few episodes before things get out of hand, she starts to take some more assertive steps. We also get to hear Warren sing, and that's never a bad thing.
A cipher of sorts is Cristián de la Fuente as Raphael Ramirez, Mary's boyfriend. A minor league shortstop , Raph loves Mary, but she is, surprise, conflicted about the whole commitment thing. The character is great, but is too often used to draw out exposition. For the time being, the remaining supporting players are somewhat generic (see rebuttal witnesses).
Video is pretty good. There some grain present, but the colors are rich, and the various shades of brown are rendered well, bringing out the natural beauty of the Albuquerque setting, keeping it from looking like dirt, dirt, and more dirt. Plus dirt. The 5.1 surround mix is good, and uses the background music—mainly southwest blues riffs—to good effect.
The only extras are deleted scenes, but there are a lot of them for each episode: alternate takes, extended takes, and complete scenes that got cut at the last minute. There's enough material there that they could do a few extended episodes for the DVD, as Grey's Anatomy does.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Right now, the two supporting actors have a problem. In the shadow of such a well-defined character as Mary, both of them struggle to break out of their own molds. Fred Weller's Marshal Marshall (He's a fifth-generation marshal, hence the name) delivers his lines with a style, and has great chemistry with Mary, but aside from sharing my penchant for utterly useless information, there's nothing new there. Ditto Paul Ben-Victor (John from Cincinnati) as Mary and Marshall's boss, Chief Inspector Stan McQueen, a stand-up boss who tries to be by the book, is exasperated with Mary and Marshall's frequent departures from protocol, stands up for them anyway, yada yada yada. At least the writers had the good sense to drop the plot thread from the pilot of him having romantic feelings towards Mary. Both actors have the tools—watch "Stan By Me" and see them dealing with Mary's abduction—but they have room to grow. So think of this less as a problem than a challenge.
Is the narration really necessary? At times, Mary's voiceovers, particularly the concluding ones, are a little too trite or obvious. They work best when the narrations seem to come from Mary's subconscious, revealing little bits of understanding that Mary herself might not fully realize.
Finally, as emotionally draining as the last three episodes were, the conclusion was a bit too neat and tidy, and strains credibility (to say the least). I'm hoping there will be some significant repercussions in the second season.
In Plain Sight just may be the jewel of the USA dramatic lineup. Burn Notice may get the love (in its defense, it does have Bruce Campbell), but Mary McCormack's performance alone elevates this show, and I'll definitely be watching the Season Two premiere.
As much as I would like to have an excuse to bring Mary Shannon into, uh, protective custody, this one is clearly not guilty. Damn those professional ethics. Just as well; she'd just beat the crap out of me and leave.
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