Witness Protected

Illustration by Wes DuvallPhoto: Lewis Jacobs / Courtesy of the USA Network

Sherman Alexie, the Native American novelist, humorist, and troublemaker, has suggested that the U.S. government must hide many of its witness-relocation-program participants in Alexie’s home state of Washington; nothing else would explain so many good pasta places in so many small towns like Colville. But where, I am wondering, does this leave Albuquerque? According to the new punchy and beguiling USA dramatic series In Plain Sight, everybody from anywhere else in the country who disappears into Witness Protection, on the lam from gangbangers or the Mafia, somehow ends up in Albuquerque for the desert air and the gun-waving, hair-tossing ministrations of Federal Marshal Mary Shannon (Mary McCormack). Marshal Mary, who wears boots instead of high heels and mesquite instead of perfume, may not always play well with others but can be counted on to find her new clients an apartment, buy them a bag of groceries and a copy of Playboy, and shoot their many enemies. (If she has to. She’d really rather talk down a bad situation, though her tongue is more wicked than civil.) Half-bodyguard, half–mother hen, she is always uncomfortable, itchy inside her big blonde beauty.

So we have here a club sandwich of cultural staples. For starters, a woman impatient with assigned sex roles, hungry for meanings she hasn’t yet articulated, a thundercloud of action and an agent of chaos right out of some sort of South Asian theology. At Mary’s home are a dipsomaniacal mother, played by Lesley Ann Warren, who is no longer as charming as she thinks she is; a druggy, narcissistic younger sister, played by Nichole Hiltz, who has at least some genuine undercover experience from time spent on The Riches; and a baseball-playing boyfriend (Cristián de la Fuente). At the office are her boss (Paul Ben-Victor), who is in awe of her, and her partner (Frederick Weller), who has more complicated feelings. No wonder she should seek to adopt the more vulnerable of her clients. She is trying, on some level, to make a family out of found desert objects.

Then add such condiments as Witness Protection, a province of paranoia as compelling as Nabokov’s Zembla. You could be innocent of everything but guilty knowledge. You might instead be thuggishness incarnate, or just married to him. The Feds will make you a plea bargain like a game-show deal, whisk you away to a place like Albuquerque, make sure you never see your extended family or old friends ever again, and make sure too that you won’t pay for any subsequent crimes you commit while under Uncle Sam’s nurturing wing. A Magic Slate wiped clean! An inconvenient “you” gurgling down the memory hole! But isn’t there also something suggestive of the mouthy students and inquisitive journalists who, ah, “disappeared” in Argentina and Chile? You have been deleted or erased.

Marshal Mary will do her best for a skinny Ukrainian accountant who has been promised big American breasts, a little boy whose mother could have been killed by his father, an obstetrician who values his practice and status above the safety and happiness of his children, and a contract killer who thinks he’s Truman Capote. Only in the fourth episode of the quartet I’ve seen will the gunplay get out of hand, and even then there’s a solid excuse: “You shouldn’t have shot my friend,” Mary explains. “I’ve only got one friend.” So far, I like it a lot. Whether this is enough to get In Plain Sight through the summer is uncertain. I liked Kyra Sedgwick very much in The Closer, and that worked out amazingly. But I liked Angie Harmon just as much in Women’s Murder Club, and ABC killed her series like a baby seal.

In Plain Sight
USA. Sundays at 10 P.M.

Witness Protected