McCormack takes the lead as Mary Shannon, a U.S. Marshal for the Federal Witness Protection Program in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Along with wisdom-spewing sidekick Marshall Man (Fred Weller)--sigh, I know...Marshall the marshal--and her beat-up purple Ford Probe SE, she spends her days trying to help innocent bystanders and hardened criminals adjust to their new lives and stay out of trouble (like being killed). When she isn't sparring with Marshall, Mary also clashes with boss Stan (Paul Ben-Victor) and Albuquerque detective Robert Dershowitz (Todd Williams), who frequently runs into her at crime scenes to fight and flirt.
Life is just as hectic at home, where the angry Mary has reluctantly opened her door to two unemployed family members: mom Jinx (Warren) and younger sis Brandi (Nichole Hiltz), who has a bad boyfriend in New Jersey who's up to something shady. Mary is equally frustrated with semi-boyfriend Raphael (de la Fuente), a promising baseball player. As with everyone else in her life, Mary is constantly butting heads with them.
If it sounds like an annoying, argumentative bunch of assholes, it is. And that's the biggest hurdle In Plain Sight faces--making viewers care about anyone here. Not only are most of the witnesses (even the innocent ones) hard to stomach, but the bulk of the main cast is a little too smart-ass for its own good. That includes Mary, who doesn't endear herself to the audience in the double-length pilot, easily one of the worst entries of the 12-episode season.
Unlike her peers in cable TV land--Michael Westen of Burn Notice, Grace Hanadarko of Saving Grace and Brenda Johnson of The Closer--Mary doesn't have enough charisma and heart in the first few episodes to make you love her in spite of the jerkiness (and she's not nearly as witty as her counterparts). That's a dangerous choice by the creators, who risk alienating impatient viewers. Basically, you just want everyone here to STFU.
The characters are so distasteful in the pilot, you'll want to smack all of them. Mary comes across as insincere and impatient: She shops for clothes before telling a clerk about the death of a friend, and later gets irritated with an innocent deaf woman (classy!). She's also disrespectful to Raph, and the scene where she fights with her mom and sister will have you dangerously close to turning off the tube. Mary makes many ill-timed and unfunny quips, but the show hasn't quite figured out how to successfully inject humor into tense situations--"cute" isn't Mary's thing.
Episode 2 isn't much better, but things start to look up in the third installment (the first episode that charmed me), where McCormack has some fun sparring with an equally strong-willed witness (Missi Pyle). Mary soon breaks out of her sarcastic shell to become multi-dimensional, and you actually begin to root for her (McCormack and the show also become more comfortable with the humor). Dave Foley shows up for Episode 4, which breaks free from the format in favor of a more action-oriented story (which has promise but fizzles at the end; the show's low-budget is more apparent during the action scenes).
A few episodes successfully take a mystery approach, and the series hits its stride in (most of) the second half: Episode 7 takes a look at the damaging effects the WITSEC program has on a family; Episode 8 features great turns from Jane Adams and John Benjamin Hickey as a combative couple (and has one of the best endings of the season); Episode 9 flashes back to a pre-pilot time where Mary gets too close to someone under her care (it features my favorite line: "As soon as we're finished, I am gonna eat that entire swan..."); and Episode 10 goes for heavier humor with a funny look at two Russian witnesses who start dating.
As the season progresses, we learn that Mary is also in need of protection--like her mom and sis, she's still coming to terms with the abandonment of her criminal father, who left them 25 years ago (an incident that hardened the lonely and jaded agent). Her desire to break out of her routine and at least think about being happy drives the show: "We all live in hiding...and one way or another, each of us conceals pieces of ourselves from the rest of the world."
But In Plain Sight's biggest test lies with Mary's mom and sister, and your reaction to them will most likely dictate your verdict on the show. At first juvenile and immature, they both mature (slightly) as the season progresses. Jinx aims to recapture her potential on stage, and the show hints at a relationship between her and bar owner Joe (the underused Christopher Stanley, who has great chemistry with Warren). But that potential subplot is unfortunately abandoned (c'mon, writers!), and Warren is relegated to the ditzy bimbo persona she was relegated to in Will & Grace.
Meanwhile, Brandi aims to find more purpose, but her snotty attitude (she repeatedly calls Raph "chico") won't win you over--and a suitcase full of drugs (a present from her boyfriend) threatens to ruin her life. While she initially spars with Raph, the two start to hit it off--developing an unfortunate spark that catches Mary's attention. It will be interesting to see how the writers work their way out of this dilemma (Season 2 has already started to air on USA); de la Fuente has far more spark with Hiltz than he does with McCormack, who has much better chemistry with a witness/detective in Episode 9 (Third Watch's Jason Wiles, who I hope returns).
While the two women become more likeable with each hour, the show takes a big step back with Episode 11 (along with the pilot, easily the worst of the season). The characters behave so terribly, you might throw up your hands and give up--there's a ridiculous scene at Jinx's audition, and Brandi later makes some unbelievably selfish decisions that will have you fuming. The writing is frustrating, and all of the character maturation is discarded--the episode is full of misunderstandings that could easily be cleared up if people just talked to each other.
But the selfish idiots don't communicate, so we're left with an awful Three's Company-like story (which can be said for much of the season's Mary/Raph/Brandi sub-plot). Faced with the possible death of her sister, Brandi prefers to crack wise rather than share information that could help save Mary: "Things could be worse," she snaps to the FBI agent. "I could be a civil servant with a bad haircut and ugly shoes."
Thankfully, the season finale gets the series back on track and ends things on a much better note. Brandi's drug dilemma comes to a head, and the episode features a cathartic argument between Mary and her family--and an ending that I absolutely loved. The season also has many other high points, and becomes an enjoyable watch most of the way. My other criticisms are minor: Mary's narration doesn't always work (Burn Notice uses the technique to better effect), Marshall character is wasted (and Weller sounds like he's doing a too-cool-for-school Christian Slater impression), Raph is poorly written (I guess Fuente does a fine job with a weak character) and the show doesn't go far enough with its material (it's a little too safe).
But I like In Plain Sight in spite of its faults, and if you're patient enough to make it past the first two episodes (and forgive Episode 11), a good time can be had. It's great to see McCormack in a leading role, and while the show isn't as addictive as Burn Notice, Saving Grace or The Closer, it has to be doing something right because I'm looking forward to checking out Season 2.
1. Pilot (aired 6-1-08) When the teenage son of a witness under Mary's care is murdered, she has 24 hours to apprehend his killer and still get to her "surprise" birthday party on time. Includes 2 deleted/extended scenes totaling 2:33.
5. Who Shot Jay Arnstein? (aired 6-29-08) The picture isn't pretty when an art dealer is murdered, and both his mistress and wife are in the program--and under suspicion. Includes 1 deleted/extended scene totaling :18.
9. Good Cop, Dead Cop (aired 7-27-08) Even though she knows it's a terrible idea, Mary has a one-night stand with a witness and then must suffer the consequences when he is accused of murder. Includes 5 deleted/extended scenes totaling 2:43.