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Critic's Notebook: A farewell to 'In Plain Sight'

May 7, 2012 |  1:45 pm

Marshall-makes-a-toast
“In Plain Sight,” the USA Network series about witness protection, came to an end last Friday after five fine seasons. Although it was, in its broad outlines, a familiar thing, a basic-cable cop show with comically bantering leads -- Mary McCormack and Frederick Weller as Albuquerque-based federal marshals -- it had its own peculiar rhythms. At its best it was as smart and rich and complex as any of television's more outwardly serious and loudly celebrated cable dramas; I followed it, purely for pleasure, from first episode to last.

Every television show is eventually about family, whether it is about “a family,” and the more so the more it goes on, as the characters and the people who play them -- and we, the people who watch them -- accumulate shared history. “In Plain Sight” was about three sorts of family: the blood relations of McCormack's Mary Shannon; the people she worked alongside; and the clients it was her job to protect, from those who would do them harm but more often from themselves. Each had its challenges.

Creator David Maples departed after the second season over disagreements with the network about the show's tone; USA, whose slogan is “Characters welcome,” wanted something lighter. But if the series that ended last week was more comedy than drama, it was still informed by Maples’ grittier vision. Without that early groundwork, without the characters having been sent to extremes – the first season ended with a long confrontation between Mary, her alcoholic mother (Lesley Ann Warren) and trouble-magnet sister (Nichole Hiltz) that had the weight and intensity of an O’Neill play -- it would have been less substantial, believable and genuinely affecting.

That it stayed real even as it grew less determinedly realistic was also due to its excellent cast -- dependably anchored by Paul Ben-Victor as boss Stan McQueen -- and especially to McCormack, an actress without any evident vanity, even before she played the fourth season pregnant, and the fifth as clearly having been pregnant. ("I'm big and I'm broad, and I'm rough, and I bite my nails," she told me in a 2009 interview. "I mean, I'm a disaster.") Wholly present in the smallest, apparently least essential moment, she pitched her performance mostly at low volume, whisper-low at times, to create intimacy and give herself room to get big without ever overplaying. Dressed darkly against the New Mexico sun -- you could not imagine her, as you could imagine any other character in the series, lounging by a pool on a day off, or lounging, or on a day off -- her Mary Shannon was acerbic, abrasive, anti-sentimental, stubborn, skeptical and delightful.

The final season -- a short one, at eight episodes -- steered the series toward closure, even speaking the word aloud in its last episode. (Spoilers imminent.) This included the first appearance of Mary's bank-robber father (Stephen Lang), whom she promptly arrested and would presently have to mourn, in her what-me-grieve way; the return of sister Brandi (offstage in Florida the whole season), pregnant and in rehab, and of former fiance Raph (Cristián de la Fuente), happily married; what I can only call a platonic love scene between Mary and Weller's marshal Marshall Mann (the climax of the series, really) in which they hold on by letting go; and the tentative introduction of a new love interest (Josh Hopkins), left to blossom in your imagination.

The finale (in which McCormack shared a writing credit) was sometimes obvious, stating the show's themes outright, gathering everyone you cared about around a single table with glasses raised, and as thorough in its distribution of parting gifts to them as “The Wizard of Oz.” But it was also deeply moving and satisfying: a present to the fans and to the characters as they stepped into their not-to-be-chronicled futures.

Related:

Mary McCormack on her "In Plain Sight" character

Comedy is spotted right in "In Plain SIght"

--Robert Lloyd

twitter.com/LATimesTVLloyd

Photo: Mary McCormack as Mary Shannon, Frederick Weller as Marshall Mann and Rachel Boston as Det. Abigail Chaffee in the final scene of "In Plain Sight" / Photo credit: USA Network

 

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