"In Plain Sight" could double as a handy guide to cop-drama mediocrity. The new USA series, premiering tomorrow night at 10, does precisely what a TV drama ought to do if it's aiming to be bad, but not bad enough to be scorned as completely awful. With supporting characters ranging from the dully vacant to the self-consciously quirky, and with crime plots that are as engaging as a game of Go Fish, "In Plain Sight" inspires mid-level irritation, mild disinterest, passing disappointment.
The show is designed to behave like TNT's two female-cop hits, "The Closer" with Kyra Sedgwick and "Saving Grace" with Holly Hunter. Mary McCormack stars as Mary Shannon, a cranky US marshal responsible for placing and guarding people in the witness protection program in New Mexico. Professionally, she's tough as nails, and she can fend off the nastiest of mob informants, including a guy whose son is murdered in tonight's 90-minute premiere. But personally, in keeping with the lady-cop formula, she's a mess, unable to be emotionally authentic with her casual boyfriend, Raphael, played with whiny indistinction by Cristian de la Fuente from "Dancing With the Stars."
McCormack - she was Howard Stern's wife in "Private Parts" and the deputy national security adviser on "The West Wing" - is generally likable, but not likable enough to make her chronically miserable character worth following. The writing just isn't strong enough to render Mary's pouting discontent interesting, with predictable lines such as, in Episode 2, "What's the deal with babies? I don't get them." Mary endlessly picks on her partner, a brainy and wry marshal named Marshall (Frederick Weller); she rolls her eyes about her boss, who's smitten with her; she's miffed there's going to be a birthday party in her honor. She's just a big pile of negativity, without any of the finely gauged oddball complexity that make Sedgwick and Hunter's detectives so watchable.
We're supposed to find sympathy for Mary after meeting her mother and sister. Her mother, Jinx, played with little-girl ditziness by Lesley Ann Warren, is a slug who lives off Mary's generosity and brings random men home with her. Mary's visiting sister, Brandi (Nichole Hiltz), is a histrionic sex kitten with a bunch of cocaine hidden in her luggage. The writers want us to find these two characters somewhat comic, but the show is so tonally awkward that the funny bits - Mom's attempt to sell cosmetics - feel more like pathos than comedy. We're supposed to think, "Oh, how quirky, this is an eccentric show, these are fun characters," but I suspect you will think something more akin to "Please shut them up."
"In Plain Sight" also fails where it counts most: Mary's cases. There is enormous potential in a procedural drama about people - both criminals and innocent witnesses - who have to abandon their lives for their own safety. Every day, they must act like someone else, always aware that hardened criminals want them dead. And the "In Plain Sight" casting department pulls together some decent guest actors to play the witnesses of the week in the first three episodes, including Wendell Pierce (Bunk from "The Wire") and Kathrine Narducci (Charmaine Bucco from "The Sopranos").
But the writing of these cases just skips over the psychological complexities of what it must be like to give yourself over to witness protection. The emphasis is on shorthand whodunit plots, when it's not on Mary's ferocity. The third episode, featuring Pierce, gives us a glimpse at an angry man in witness protection who resents having to leave his medical practice behind. But his story is nonetheless superficial, and resolved with embarrassing patness. Ultimately, that episode leaves only a vague sense of the rich territory that "In Plain Sight" could have explored with better writing.