A doc that looks like Sting, acts like House
If Chris Vance of "Mental" doesn't get to play Sting in a movie in the near future, the earth just won't sit right on its axis. Seriously. Vance is the latest UK actor to head up an American TV series, after Hugh Laurie, Tim Roth, Rufus Sewell, Simon Baker, and Damian Lewis, and he bears a remarkable resemblance to the singer-songwriter. It's not just Vance's facial structure at certain angles - it's the twinkle in his eyes, the sardonic smirk, the tone of his voice.
But I digress. Already. And that's because the rest of "Mental," which premieres tonight at 9 on Channel 25, isn't quite as fascinating. Indeed, it's a stubbornly mediocre product that really, really, really wants to be "House" in a hospital psych ward. Vance is Jack Gallagher, the new department head who ruthlessly manipulates his younger charges and refuses to play by the rules. Like Dr. House, he polarizes the staff and frequently requires protective intervention by a sexy-maternal Cuddy-like hospital administrator (Annabella Sciorra). But he always solves his case, with a frothy mixture of brilliance and insanity.
It's too bad "Mental" doesn't take off, as it chases so feverishly after "House." There's room on TV for a good psychiatric drama set in a hospital, and it was unfortunate that ABC's far superior 2000 series "Wonderland" (from "Friday Night Lights" writer-producer Peter Berg) was quickly canceled. "Mental" tries to tackle a big mental-illness-of-the-week, from the story of an unstable artist who has gone off his meds to that of a woman undergoing a hysterical pregnancy. But the writers create embarrassingly simplistic portraits of these patients and, even worse, the episodes resolve into schmaltzy unrealism.
There are, of course, a bunch of subplots afoot among Gallagher's staffers, who include the uptight and order-obsessed Dr. Hayden-Jones (Jacqueline McKenzie from "The 4400") and two residents (Marisa Ramirez and Nicholas Gonzalez) who have a one-sided flirtation. Their stories, like those of the patients, are boilerplate, with an adulterous affair and an out lesbian among the topics. Not helping matters: The show is set in Los Angeles but filmed in Colombia for budget reasons, so there's nothing La-La Land-ish about the backdrop. It's as generic as the writing.
Gallagher's personal story is also uninviting, as he receives silent phone calls from his mysterious sister. Maybe Gallagher would be of more interest if he weren't so smug about his great abilities - to diagnose patients, to charm his colleagues, to second-guess his employees. He has a sanctimonious streak, as he righteously tells the doctors that they work for their patients, and that "we treat the person, not just the disease." When he makes bold, heroic moves, such as taking off his clothes to bond with a naked patient in distress, you don't want to cheer so much as tell him to get off his high horse and get dressed. Also on the tip of your tongue, perhaps: Don't stand so close to me.