Review: 'Mind Games' with Steve Zahn, Christian Slater shows heart

In "Mind Games," a new ABC drama-with-comedy premiering Tuesday, Steve Zahn and Christian Slater play brothers setting themselves up in the manipulation business.

"We change people's minds without them knowing we did it," is how brother Clark Edwards (Zahn) describes their work, which takes "little observations" about human behavior "that had just been lying around in academic journals" and turns them into "powerful tools" to achieve desired outcomes. There is reference also to Jedi mind tricks.

If it is not the Steve Zahn series the fan club might have desired after the death of HBO's "Treme," which used his shaggy, unfocused exuberance to great effect, it is still a Steve Zahn series, and there should always be one of those, one feels. Here he plays a brilliant behavioral scientist who is also bipolar; that he has been given this self-dividing affliction seems almost inevitable in light of the fact that "Mind Games" creator Kyle Killen was also behind the late series "Lone Star," about bigamy, and "Awake," about a man living in two realities.

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The pilot finds Clark more consistently manic than is practicable — he is off his meds because "drugs stop the music" and "music is where all the ideas come from" — both for the business he is trying to start and perhaps for the viewer at home. Every so often he tosses the furniture around, either out of frustration or in the name of scientific feng shui, or both. In a later episode available for review, he calms down a bit.

As brother Ross, who has served time for securities fraud — he is the more practical brother, in other words — Slater is not far from his last television outing, as a thief-turned-security-consultant on Fox's "Breaking In." As an actor, and at 44, Slater still seems to drag behind him the train of his callow screen youth; though busy, and certainly busier than he was in the 1990s, he has yet to find his redefining Rob Lowe moment.

His new show also needs to find its voice. Still, if there is something in its premise that recalls the straining-for-effect, too-clever-to-start setups of series like USA's "Psych" and "Suits," the first of those managed to run eight seasons in the end, and the latter has already been renewed for a fourth. In the gentler environment of basic cable, with a little time to refine its tone, "Mind Games" would certainly do similarly well. Network TV, of course, is a more desperate place, but I am not ready to pull the sheet over this yet.

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The show it most resembles is another basic-cable series, TNT's late "Leverage," in which a team of hustlers aided the weak in their ongoing fight against the strong — "Mind Games " too has a sentimental streak for a backbone — but with the addition of terms like "adrenalized implantation," "cover memory reactivation" and "contiguous consumption compliance window."

"Sudden negative reinforcement alleviates reluctance," Clark says after he has told an associate to quit whining.

"I'm familiar with yelling at people," Ross says. "You don't need to explain it."

Like "Leverage," and every caper-ish entertainment that stakes its payoff on human beings behaving like atomic particles, "Mind Games" does require an ongoing suspension of disbelief. It is less scientific than it is "scientific."

And yet one also senses that Clark and Ross and their customarily motley crew have less control over things than they imagine. Much goes wrong, or goes right unpredictably. The show's salvation, creatively at least, may be in such occasional failures more than in the mandated victories.


'Mind Games'

Where: ABC

When: 10 p.m. Tuesday

Rating: TV-PG-L (may be unsuitable for young children with an advisory for coarse language)


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