Working girl

In Plain Sight’s straight talk
By CHARLES TAYLOR  |  July 15, 2008

PROUD MARY: McCormack is fluent in the hard-boiled American language of smart-ass.

On USA’s nifty summer series In Plain Sight (Sundays at 10 pm), Mary McCormack, as federal marshal Mary Shannon, joins the select league of those who’ve made jeans, tank tops, boots, and leather jackets into an American fashion statement. McCormack is a tall, robust woman with long, straight dirty blond hair, and Mary Shannon’s uniform (and it is a uniform, as much as Giorgio Armani’s ever-present black T-shirt, or Batman’s cape and cowl) is an expression of both our native casualness and her utilitarian no-nonsense approach.

Mary is stationed in Albuquerque, and her assignment is to settle people into the witness-protection program. Some, like the little boy who sees his father’s dealings with drug kingpins, are innocent witnesses. Others are scumbags getting a second start by spilling what they know.

The terrific thing about Mary is that — minus a smidge of compassion for the innocent — her approach isn’t that different with either class of witness-protection entrant. Not a romantic or a dreamer or prone to sentimentality, she doesn’t expend a lot of time deceiving people about the lousy deal of life. In fact, getting a chance to start over is, she recognizes, a damn sight better deal than those of us who play by the rules get. Her empathy comes out in quirkier ways — like including a copy of Playboy in the bag of groceries she buys for a young Russian girl entering the program. The feds have promised this sad-sack Masha a boob job, and Mary proffers the magazine as if it were the Sears catalogue of mammaries.

It’s her own life that doesn’t lead her to expect happy endings. Her home is crowded by her airhead mother (Lesley Ann Warren, who isn’t getting the material she needs in order to dig into the edge of desperation in her performance) and sister (Nicole Hiltz), both of them fond of chemical substances in the liquid and powder form. And her relationship with a would-be major-league pitcher is stuck on the rocky road between sweethearts and fuck buddies.

I hope that the creator, David Maples, doesn’t make the mistake of starting up a romance between Mary and her partner, Marshall (Frederick Weller, whose offhand delivery is growing on me), as the erotic/professional tension between them is not only very pleasing but a convincing description of a coed work relationship powered by mutual respect. Maples has executed a smart reversal of the cliché of the sawed-off tyrant of a boss by making Mary’s, Stan (Paul Ben Victor), so in awe of her that he might be her subordinate.

In Plain Sight is in the hard-boiled tradition (if not yet the league) of writers like Elmore Leonard and Ross Thomas for whom hard-boiled means speaking the distinctly American tongue of smart-ass. McCormack speaks it fluently. The show is unimaginable without her. Even when the plotting goes blooey (some of these hiding witnesses lead awfully visible lives), McCormack sets the tone, carrying the whole thing on her weary, slightly hunched shoulders. Her performance is an essay in the exasperation of a smart, wised-up person who has to put up with the world’s bullshit. I don’t think I’ve loved her more than when she explained her refusal to tip a barista. “They pour coffee! It’s not like they’re waiters.” Do your job and shut up.

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