ON THE CHEAP Sciorra and Vance don't give Hugh Laurie much of a run for the money.
Insufferability has its upside. Case in point: House — which stars Hugh Laurie as a cranky, pill-popping doctor who routinely insults his patients and staff — has been a long-running hit on Fox. By contrast, Fox's new drama Mental (Thursdays at 9 pm on Fox) is House with a thoroughly likable doctor at its center, but it won't have half the shelf life of its predecessor.
Mental stars Chris Vance as Dr. Jack Gallagher, a British shrink recruited to run the psychiatric unit at a Los Angeles hospital, much to the dismay of some veteran employees who thought they deserved the job. This being a TV show, viewers meet-cute with Gallagher: when an unhinged patient strips down in a hospital corridor, so does he, in an effort to gain the patient's trust. His ploy works, of course, but his behavior only fuels his antagonists' misgivings.
The Fox press material refers to Gallagher as a "maverick" — could we have a moratorium on that word? Nora Skoff (Annabella Sciorra), the administrator who hired him, says things like "Another stunt like that and you'll be out on your very public ass" and "Try not to piss anybody important off today." When a colleague asks him, "Do you honestly think you're qualified for this job?", he replies, "Probably not." But he's there anyway, because he hopes to make a difference. So where House offends everyone with his morbid cynicism, Gallagher offends everyone with his inspiring can-do spirit.
Like House, of course, Jack is only seeking what's best for the patient. And like House, Mental unfurls as a series of medical mysteries with sundry clues and red herrings. Doctors sneak into patients' homes for secret information, and the medical residents (Nicholas Gonzalez, Marisa Ramirez) are patronized.
Not that Mental — which was created by Deborah Joy LeVine (Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman) — will have to be good to go down in history. Yes, it's the first American-scripted series to be shot in Bogotá. (The hospital grounds are far too lush for a financially hamstrung hospital in drought-plagued LA.) One can only imagine how cheap it must be to shoot in Colombia to justify dragging actors into the midst of drug wars and kidnappings and homicides.
There are other indications that Mental is a cheap foreign knockoff. We keep getting scenes from the mental patient's point of view, with cheesy distortions of the image that are achieved by compressing the camera's focus, or by stretching or pulling the image. These are such hackneyed visual cues that nowadays they're used only in parodies depicting mental illness.
Vance is engaging enough, but no one else in the cast really pops — and that includes Sciorra, who early on, at least, isn't given much to do. The characterizations are mostly dutiful Xeroxes of Xeroxes. Storylines are neither inspired nor awful; one future episode involves a hysterical pregnancy with an inspired twist that gets undone by a dumb resolution. One ongoing plotline — a mysterious, troubled woman keeps contacting Gallagher, only to vanish back into the ether — is the very definition of cheap storytelling: Gallagher and Nora already know about her and her backstory. We're the only ones who don't. Besides, the mystery is hardly compelling enough to keep people tuning in. Mental is passable television, but it's also a cautionary warning for TV producers looking to cut costs: you get what you pay for.