HK and Cult Film News's Fan Box

Saturday, November 28, 2009


Watching MENTAL: THE COMPLETE FIRST SEASON is like eating a bowl of peanut M&Ms. It's candy-coated, full of nuts, and not particularly good for you. But you may not want to stop until you've finished the whole thing.

Chris Vance (a dead ringer for a young Harvey Keitel) plays psychiatrist Jack Gallagher, who, in the series pilot, has just been appointed the new head of mental health services at a Los Angeles hospital. Jack has been promoted because of his effective yet highly unorthodox methods, which he displays as soon as he walks in the door. When a schizophrenic patient named Vincent strips naked and starts freaking out because he thinks everyone around him is a monster, Jack immediately doffs his own clothes and joins him. "I've got your back," he tells the agitated man, eventually calming him down. Thus, the episode is off and running with a clear example of what we can expect for the rest of the season--an offbeat hero whose alternative methods and empathy for his patients will save the day and astound his by-the-book colleagues time after time.

Annabella Sciorra co-stars as the hospital administrator Nora Skoff--Jack's ex-lover, as it turns out--who supports him despite much initial skepticism from those around her. This includes another psychiatrist, Dr. Veronica Hayden-Jones (Jacqueline McKenzie), who will eventually become Jack's ally, and two residents, Arturo Suarez (Nicholas Gonzalez) and Chloe Artis (Marisa Ramirez), who are similarly nonplussed at first but begin to find Jack's way of doing things intriguing. Jack's chief adversary is Dr. Carl Belle (Derek Webster), a conniving weasel who wants to turn the psychiatric wing into a testing ground for a large pharmacutical company with big pockets.

Because a regular doctor using conventional methods would be too boring for TV, Jack does cool stuff like breaking into the house where Vincent lives with his sister and her kids and rummaging through his stuff for clues to his behavior. Of course, Jack gets arrested and must be bailed out of jail by Dr. Skoff. He also insists that patients be allowed to sit in on administrative staff meetings, and then takes them outside to frolic around instead of being treated in a controlled environment. It's good that the writers give Jack such a wonderful success rate because I'm not sure how well he'd fare in a real psychiatric ward.

During the 13 episodes of season one we're introduced to a wide variety of troubled patients who need the kind of help that only Jack seems intuitive enough to give. Nicholle Tom guest stars as a woman who claims to be seven-months pregnant although her ultrasound says she isn't. Another patient is a small boy who retreats from his problems by playing a videogame inside his head in which he's running from various frightening creatures. Nina Siemaszko plays a woman pushing her husband, who has OCD and Tourette's, into dangerous brain surgery when she herself may be the root of his frequent relapses.

An autistic girl named Leeza is the only witness to her father's murder, but it takes Jack's intuitive empathy to get anywhere with her. Another patient, a construction worker injured in an accident, seems to be suffering from memories of a mine collapse that happened decades before he was born. David Carradine makes his final television appearance as a catatonic author whose guilt over his wife's death may be what's keeping him from waking up. One of my favorite episodes, "House of Mirrors", is about a teenage girl named Heather who tries to commit suicide by setting herself on fire. While delving into Heather's troubled psyche, Jack makes a startling discovery concerning her physical state as well.

In the penultimate episode 12, "Life and Limb", Jack finally locates his long-lost sister, Becky (Amanda Douge), who suffers from schizophrenia and has been living on the streets for years. It turns out she's the most important thing in his life--his obsession--and he's fighting the efforts of his mother (Samantha Eggar) and stepfather to gain custody of Becky and put her in an institution near their home in Florida. Meanwhile, a troubled young man with a body-image disorder cuts his own hand off because he feels it doesn't belong on his body. While his parents struggle to attain the legal power to have the hand reattached against their son's wishes, Jack tries to convince them that he's happier without it. Weird--and not quite how I might've handled it--but interesting.

The season finale, "Bad Moon Rising", finds the entire cast being held hostage by a werewolf. Yes, this dangerously unstable individual thinks that when the full moon rises he'll turn into a hairy, murderous beast, and after his initial cry for help is rebuffed by a dismissive Dr. Belle (the jerk!) he invades Jack's apartment and holds everyone at gunpoint until the rising of the moon will prove that he needs help. Jack, of course, does the only logical thing available--he tells the crazed gunman to bite him. (Yes, he literally says, "Bite me!") Thus, he puts himself in the same boat with the patient as he so often does, and they both await their impending transformation together.

A parallel plotline has the cash-strapped psychiatric wing threatened with closure unless Dr. Skoff can come up with lots of money fast, making way for the evil pharmacutical company to move in and take over. With dastardly Dr. Belle as their point man, the first order of business is to fire Jack and send him packing--ending the season with your classic cliffhanger.

This 4-disc set from 20-Century Fox Home Entertainment is in widescreen and Dolby Digital 5.1 with English, French, Portugese, and Spanish subtitles. Disc four contains an alternate, unrated version of the pilot in which you get to see Jack's bare bum. There's also a brief featurette, "Paging Dr. Gallagher", in which Chris Vance talks about his character ("The stuff that Jack gets up to is...bordering on ridiculous", he candidly admits).

"Mental" isn't great television but it's pretty good compared to most of the dreck that clogs the airwaves. Breezy and easy to watch despite its often dark subject matter, it's a fantasy version of psychiatry that presents unusual mental maladies for its rather flaky hero to deal with in quirky and sometimes downright odd ways. Not quite realistic, perhaps, but I found it almost effortlessly entertaining.

Buy it at

No comments: