Review: Mind Games 1×1 (ABC)

When two show-killers met, it was… okay

Mind Games

In the US: Tuesdays, 10/9c, ABC

Talking of show killers, let’s talk about two more.

Christian Slater is pretty much a death knell to any show he happens to be in. We’ve had in the past half decade or so My Own Worst Enemy, The Forgotten and Breaking In, all of them pretty much doomed from the moment Slater joined the cast list to not even being one-season wonders.

Keep your eyes on Breaking In, by the way – remember that? A Fox ensemble comedy about an unusual workplace? – it’ll be important in a minute. No, this is not a mind game.

Now let’s take a look at Kyle Killen. Killen is a man too smart for network TV and he produces shows that really should be on cable and so get cancelled after getting zero audience on network TV. His first effort, Lone Star, was generally saluted as an excellent, dark piece of work about a con man, and as it was on Fox, it got cancelled so quickly, I didn’t even have a chance to review all three of its episodes.

Awake, an almost as serious, interesting piece of work, saw Jason Isaacs as a cop struggling to tell which was real – his waking state or his sleeping state – before eventually discovering that both were equally unreal. As that was on NBC, its low ratings were pretty much in keeping with every other show’s, so that managed to survive a whole season.

Keep an eye on Awake – it’ll be important in a minute. No, this is not a mind game.

Anyway, now on ABC, a network that has traditionally skewed (with a couple of exceptions such as Lost) towards the mildly diverting and soap opera-ish, we have a combination of Slater and Killen – as well as Slater and Killen’s biggest highlights – that logically should be a drama series that’s dead on arrival. In fact, there’s probably not much point watching a single episode of Mind Games.

An ensemble dramedy, it mines both Awake and Breaking In, as well as the likes of Lie To Me and even Inception, to give us a show about two brothers: the slightly ethically dodgy Slater and his bipolar psychiatry expert brother Steve Zahn (Treme), who go into business together with a novel idea – to use the past 60 years of behavioural research to influence people into doing the thing you want them to do.

Unable to get much by way of backing from rich people – in part because of Zahn’s more manic tendencies, in part because of Slater having gone to prison for fraud for a couple of years – they decide to prove their ideas work by using their diverse and ill defined team of helper monkeys to do pro bono work for poor people that they can use as case studies. They start off by performing inception on a surgeon, except without all the interesting dream manipulation. Cue the hilarity, the heart warming and the quirkiness.

And the prompt cancellation.

With a little bit of science, a dash of con-artistry, plus a smattering of Jedi mind tricks, brothers Ross (Christian Slater) and Clark Edwards (Steve Zahn) can tailor a plan to influence any life-altering situation, thereby making their clients’ dreams come true and their nightmares go away. They are partners in Edwards and Associates, an unusual business based on the belief that people’s decisions are influenced by their environment in ways they’re not aware.

Is it any good?
Whether it’s because of network interference, Killen being forced to work on a show so beneath him and his talents he probably has vertigo, or the simple talisman of evil that is Christian Slater, this is a largely unremarkable show that squanders all its good central ideas and submerges them under a quagmire of tweeness and attempts at comedy that are akin not just to fingernails but powertools on a blackboard.

It’s not all bad. Despite his albatross-like nature, hanging round the neck of show, Slater is dialled back and restrained, as is actress helper Megalyn Echikunwoke (House of Lies). There are some clever concepts on display, albeit one nicked from Inception (convincing a man to do something by putting an idea of identity into his mind), and some slight hints at some decent background stories between the characters – particularly Slater’s, Zahn’s, Slater’s ex-wife and Zahn’s ex-girlfriend. It’s not afraid to steal from Lie To Me either, happily exploring and exploiting the truth of racism for these very tiny Mission: Impossibles. And the idea of the underdog, the company that has no money and has to do good things to become successful, is compelling.

But all of this is covered with an acre of stupid. The biggest problem is Steve Zahn’s character; the second biggest problem is Zahn. Because not only is this effectively the Steve Zahn show, putting him at its heart and making it all about him, to the detriment of potentially more interesting characters, it’s all about his character – who’s bipolar.

Bravely, unlike with say The Happy Endings Playbook, this is someone who’s down as well as up, but despite the presence of the supposedly calming effect of Slater’s ex-wife, he’s rarely in the middle. The result is that much of the pilot episode see Zahn leaping about, shouting, throwing things, attacking people, throwing tables over, getting arrested and more as the result of his condition. Effectively, it’s the “why you shouldn’t have someone bipolar in your business meeting” show, rather than anything else.

Even when the script asks for Zahn to be relatively mellow, he’s just loud and dominates the scene, making it hard for anyone else to shine and for the jokes to work.

It’s not without good moments, intelligence or even the occasional laugh. It’s just it should be so much better, so much less derivative and so much more about the ‘mind games’ themselves. I’m hoping that things might get a little better in episode two, now everything’s been established, but I don’t have high hopes for the show to take us anywhere more exciting than it already has.


  • Rob Buckley

    I’m Rob Buckley, a journalist who writes for UK media magazines that most people have never heard of although you might have heard me on the podcast Lockdown Land or Radio 5 Live’s Saturday Edition or Afternoon Edition. I’ve edited Dreamwatch, Sprocket and Cambridge Film Festival Daily; been technical editor for TV producers magazine Televisual; reviewed films for the short-lived newspaper Cambridge Insider; written features for the even shorter-lived newspaper Soho Independent; and was regularly sarcastic about television on the blink-and-you-missed-it “web site for urban hedonists” The Tribe. Since going freelance, I've contributed to the likes of Broadcast, Total Content + Media, Action TV, Off The Telly, Action Network, TV Scoop and The Custard TV.