I was nervous going into the pilot of Mind Games that I’d be too in-the-bag for the show: I’m very partial to series set in Chicago; I have a deep love for Steve Zahn; and I adored creator Kyle Killen’s previous shows Lone Star and Awake. (RIP to both of them.) Plus, Mind Games isn’t about murder, rape, or attempted murder or rape, so it’s already distinguishing itself! Unfortunately for all of us, I needn’t have worried: I am not at all in the bag for Mind Games. There’s no bag. Mind Games, which premieres tonight at 10 p.m. on ABC, is an off-putting misfire.
Zahn stars as Clark, a behavioral sciences professor who refuses medication for his bipolar disorder. (“Drugs stop the music,” he says. “Music is where all the ideas come from.”) He works alongside his brother, Ross (Christian Slater), who recently served two years in prison for securities fraud, and the two have an unusual firm: You hire them, and they help change people’s minds — not with PR or persuasion, but with what one client refers to as “Jedi mind tricks,” elaborate psychological schemes that prime subjects to behave certain ways. They orchestrate a stage fight at a bus stop so an insurance executive who witnesses it will, later in the day, agree to cover an experimental procedure. That sounds kind of inventive, but in practice, it plays out like an episode of Psych or Leverage or House or half a dozen other procedurals where Some Kind of Genius showers the regular people with his brilliance, which he is choosing to use for good. Often this genius is rude, but that’s just part of his genius-ness! Love it or leave it! (P.S. No one ever leaves it.)
I can tolerate the parts of Mind Games that feel uninspired. What’s harder to pardon is the show’s approach to mental illness. Part of Homeland’s early acclaim stemmed from the show’s unromantic depiction of Carrie’s bipolar disorder, and the havoc it caused in her life when she discontinued treatment. Mind Games tries to have it both ways: Sure, Clark is a frightening stalker who says he leaves his ex-girlfriend “15 to 20 voice mails a day,” sends her “20,000-word emails,” and eventually throws a brick through the window of the apartment she no longer lives in, but isn’t he also so charming? And brilliant? With his masterful manipulation of strangers’ autonomic nervous systems? Well … no. Bipolar disorder isn’t a quirk, and the show only barely acknowledges how debilitating it can be not just for the person who has it but for those around them. Mind Games isn’t obligated to be a PSA about mental illness, but I do wish it did not present the pernicious fallacy that medication is a barrier to being one’s true, brilliant self.
Beyond that wish, I mostly wish the show did more with the ethical questions it raises. I’m comfortable with Jedis employing Jedi mind tricks, since Jedis are sworn upholders of decency and justice, but just some dudes who have a big loft office in the Loop? Should they really get to manipulate ordinary people who are just trying to do their jobs? We’re all subject to psychological manipulation in the form of, say, advertising, but we also know when we’re being advertised to; there’s something Truman Show–level disquieting about falsifying someone’s surroundings so they behave the way you want them to. That person who said thank you for holding the door? He’s in on it. The woman on the bus who complimented your scarf? She’s in on it, too. That’s weird and messed up and worth investigating in some ethical capacity, but Mind Games assumes that we think its characters will make sound and safe decisions about whom to trick, so it instead focuses on the nuts and bolts of how to orchestrate these schemes. Mind Games could be a dark, probing show about the shadowy corners of our brains and behaviors. But it’s not.