ABC’s new Mind Games is the sweetest, most heartwarming show about a mild form of mind control that you’ll ever see. Its slightly creepy content is at odds with the fact that it’s being aired by a broadcast network. It’s also Kyle Killen’s latest quixotic effort to bring his unique sensibility to network television (and by far the least of them, at least two episodes in). Yet in a world of procedurals about the horrible things human beings are capable of, Mind Games is an appealing alternative that wants to be about people doing good.
Though Mind Games is a straightforward procedural, the Killen touch can be felt at every level of the show, starting with its central characters. As Clark and Ross Edwards, Steve Zahn and Christian Slater play broken brothers who’ve often only had each other to lean on. Clark suffers from bipolar disorder, while Ross is an ex-con who’s always two steps away from another jail cell. (Clark is one of a large number of characters with bipolar disorder coming to TV this midseason, a sign of Homeland’s influence finally making its way through the slow-churning TV development cycle.) These character backgrounds give both actors room to roam, and their brotherly connection is something the series can already rely on to solid effect.
The brothers are more than the sum of their failures, however. They also operate a firm called The Edwards Agency, which attempts to use psychology and other social sciences to create environments that will influence people in imperceptible ways—ways that will then work to the benefit of the firm’s clients. In the pilot, the agency creates a scenario where a higher-up at a health insurance company will approve expensive surgery for a young boy who needs it, even after the company has denied that surgery several times before. A later episode will combine an attempt to get a congressman to support a gun control bill and a more practical application of the firm’s talents by influencing a car salesman to drop his price lower than he wants to.
To be clear, the mental influence stuff is a lot of fun. Killen and his writers have dug through numerous old studies to find the ways that the human brain forms associations between various things, often subconsciously. The scenes where Clark explains to his incredulous team just what they’re going to do are a refreshing change from the endless litany of shows where these expositional scenes simply take viewers through the latest crime-solving technique or technology. There’s also the sense of viewers getting to learn about some of this stuff alongside the client of the week.
The problem is that all of this is a little unsettling, and it’s not immediately clear that the series is aware of that. There are requisite scenes where characters ask if The Edwards Agency’s work is legal, questions the brothers skate past. There’s an emphasis on making sure Clark and company use their powers only for good, and the production of the series keeps things “quirky,” not frightening.
Killen’s a smart guy, and his two prior series, Lone Star and Awake, were comfortable with nuance. Mind Games is, too—in small doses. But this show was also hit with the ABC stick, so the scenes that question the brothers’ methods are leavened with bubbly music and the message is underlined two or three times. In several instances, there’s a sense that the show’s interesting edges are being sanded off: In the second episode screened for critics, Clark’s bipolar disorder has been downplayed considerably. Anything like conflict is being pushed aside in favor of jolly good times.
However, Mind Games has so many good qualities that it deserves some leeway to see where those qualities lead the show. The dialogue often crackles; the educational aspect even makes exposition fun to watch. Zahn is quite good, and the supporting cast already has an entertaining ensemble energy. Most of all, there’s the sense that this is a show about people who are trying to make the world a slightly better place. That’s traditionally been a hard thing to build a TV show around, but if Mind Games can bring it front and center—while also grappling with the premise’s more unsavory aspects—it could turn into something special.