'Mind Games' review: Steve Zahn, Christian Slater and ABC are messing with our heads

mind-games-review-abc.jpgABC's new drama "Mind Games" was created by Kyle Killen, the man behind critically acclaimed but ratings-deprived dramas "Lone Star" and "Awake." It has a couple of the hallmarks of his previous shows -- men struggling with their dual natures, moral ambiguity -- but it's wrapped in a brighter, more easily digestible package than either of his previous shows.

The good news for ABC is that "Mind Games" is probably the most accessible show Killen has created. There are ongoing character stories, but it's also a procedural in which the main characters, brothers played by Steve Zahn and Christian Slater, are the good guys, tilting the scales a little bit toward powerless people in trouble.

The bad news is that of the three shows Killen has created, "Mind Games" is the least compelling of the lot, or maybe it's compelling in the wrong ways: The biggest tension in the show seems to be between the fun, slightly fizzy series ABC wants it to be and a somewhat darker, more nuanced one that threatens to poke through at times.

The business brothers Clark (Zahn) and Ross Edwards (Slater) are in is psychological manipulation -- "changing people's minds without them knowing it," is how Clark explains it in Tuesday's (Feb. 25) series premiere. And while they're very much on the side of the little guy, the idea of running a business based on that is considerably creepier than the show seems to think it is.

Clark is a brilliant academic who studies psychology and human behavior. He's also bipolar and has been unable to hold onto university jobs, most recently because he had a relationship with an undergrad. Ross is an ex-con, recently out of prison after serving a short sentence for fraud. 

Their clients are desperate -- and usually not able to afford much -- and the business is in a precarious place. Others around them seem to recognize what they're doing is ethically questionable, but they insist they're in it for the right reasons, and at least in the two episodes ABC sent out for review, they are most definitely wearing the white hats (oh, what they could do as subcontractors for Pope and Associates).

"Mind Games" also very effectively pulls at the heartstrings. I found myself welling up at a couple of moments in the two episodes, even as I realized what a shameless play the respective scenes were making. Maybe Killen and his fellow writers picked up a few things in the course of their research for the show. Zahn and Slater also work really well together, their similar energies complementing one another rather than canceling each other out.

What "Mind Games" doesn't do, though, is delve very deeply into the implications of wielding that kind of power over people. ABC sent out the first and fifth episodes of the show for review, and in episode 5, you'll eventually see that there's some blowback from one of the cases in the premiere (along with a new character, played by Jaime Ray Newman, who's not in the premiere). There's also an unexpected breakthrough for the firm that could lead to many more clients and solvency for the business -- but the way it comes about, it's hard not to wonder if some of them will be looking to use Ross and Clark's expertise for shadier ends.

They may or may not follow that path, but it would at least be interesting to see the characters and the show wrestle with the idea. ABC clearly wants viewers to see "Mind Games" as a light, uplifting procedural, but it's hard to take that at face value when even characters within the show are pointing out the potentially darker elements lurking under the surface.

Quality and accessibility need not be mutually exclusive in TV drama. Killen's prior track record notwithstanding, there are countless shows that disprove the lazy notion that critically acclaimed equals low-rated. But the disconnect between what "Mind Games" wants to be and the show bubbling just under the surface makes it a bit of a puzzling viewing experience.

"Mind Games" premieres at 10 p.m. ET/PT Tuesday on ABC.
Photo/Video credit: ABC
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