Writer/producer Kyle Killen has had some bad luck with some good series. “Lone Star,” his 2010 drama starring James Wolk as a Texas con-man leading two lives with two different women he was in love with ran for just two critically acclaimed but low-rated episodes on Fox before getting canceled. “Awake,” his 2012 NBC fantasy/crime series featuring Jason Isaacs as a cop switching between different realities in which either his wife or his son died in a car accident, fared a little better, lasting a full 13-episode season before getting cut. (“The Beaver,” which he wrote and Jodie Foster directed, faced a different sort of challenge by way of its controversy-laden star Mel Gibson.)
So while it’s a little disappointing, it’s hard to blame Killen for choosing to play things safer in his new series, “Mind Games,” which premieres on ABC on Tuesday, February 25th, seeing as he’s had two high-concept dramas go under without managing to attract enough of an audience.
“Mind Games” is set up for a more traditional and easier to jump into episodic structure — it’s about an unusual company that takes on cases — and concept-wise, it feels rather Frankensteined out of shows we’re seen before. Christian Slater and Steve Zahn play brothers Ross and Clark Edwards, who founded the Chicago-based Edwards and Associates to help people using behavioral psychology to swing situations in their clients’ favor.
Ross is the slick one, fresh out of jail for a white-collar crime, and Clark is the smart, unstable one, a bipolar scientific genius who’s at his creative best when he’s off his meds. The first case they take on in the pilot involves a mother whose son has been turned down for a operation by their insurance company, though others will hopefully be less altruistic and a little more unsteady in terms of the manipulation going on. (Edwards and Associates is financially strapped enough that they really can’t be too picky.)
The brothers Edwards and their team, which also includes two noodly younger guys played by Gregory Marcel and Cedric Sanders and an aspiring actress played by Megalyn Echikunwoke (late of “House of Lies”), attempt to sway the family’s appeal by arranging events to lead the insurance agent to feel he’s the type of man who stands up for the little guys. Per Ross’ pitch for funding for the company, “these little observations about human nature that had just been laying around in academic journals could be turned into very powerful tools capable of doing nothing short of helping decide who becomes the next leader of the free world.”
The pop-psychology-as-magic-power aspect of “Mind Games” makes it feel like a cousin to “Lie to Me,” in which Tim Roth’s character was able to see through to the truth of a situation thanks to his knowledge of microexpressions. Christian Slater as the head of a business operating in a moral grey area can recall his earlier comedy “Breaking In,” while Zahn’s take on Clark’s erratic behavior often seems less like a portrayal of actual mental illness and more on the cute side, like his outburst-prone actions as Davis McAlary on “Treme.”
So “Mind Games” doesn’t feel terribly fresh, though there’s a lightweight heist aspect to how the team responds to each case that’s appealing — the idea of making a man think of his son by subconsciously planting signals around town to remind him of the kid, for instance, has a nice poetry to it that doesn’t smack of reprogramming someone. But it’s in the dynamic between the brothers that “Mind Games” has the most potential.
Killen’s done two previous series about double lives, and he hasn’t entirely abandoned the idea of duality in “Mind Games” — Ross and Clark need each other, they operate better in each other’s company and they are able to communicate in a manner their employees describe as vaguely telepathic. But there’s a darker side to that mutual dependence that’s brought up at the end of the first episode and that promises to complicate matters for Edwards and Associates in the future. Ross may ground Clark and steer him away from his more erratic tendencies, and Clark may provide Ross with an impetus to keep to a more ethical path, but their partnership isn’t as simply feel-good as it first appears. And it’s the promise of a more complex dynamic between the two that could make “Mind Games” more than a pleasant diversion, and allow Slater and Zahn, two very capable actors, to dig a little deeper into these roles.