Developing a female TV law-enforcement character is always a dicey proposition. If she's too kooky, it turns audiences off (Kate Mulgrew in 1979's short-lived Mrs. Columbo). And if she's got that tough-but-beautiful thing going, she can veer into macha parody (Yancy Butler in both 2001's Witchblade and 1992's Mann & Machine, or most of the women who've cycled through the Law & Order franchise).
The trend recently has been toward a happy medium, tough but screwed-up women with occasional redeeming vulnerability: They're a TNT staple, with Holly Hunter in Saving Grace and Kyra Sedgwick in The Closer. Now joining them is Mary McCormack on USA's new cop series, In Plain Sight. McCormack (The West Wing) plays Mary Shannon, a U.S. marshal in Albuquerque, N.M., who minds star testifiers in the Witness Protection Program. We know McCormack's Mary is hot because she throws her blond hair around, wears plunging-neckline tops, and reduces her smitten boss (The Wire's Paul Ben-Victor) to a goofy schoolboy. We know Mary is tough because she says things like, ''I don't give a rat's ass about your protocol!'' and, confronted with an adorable infant, snaps, ''What's the deal with babies? I don't get 'em.'' There's also a lot of wild harmonica music on the soundtrack every time Mary gets into a car, subliminally signaling impending nonurban craziness.
The plots are often unbelievable. (In an upcoming episode, The Wire's Wendell Pierce plays a wealthy L.A. doctor who has to relocate his family and work as a low-level medical clinic employee just because his daughter is testifying against the punks who shot her boyfriend.) But I like Mary, especially as she's set up in the series premiere, complete with a wacky mom (these days, Lesley Ann Warren corners the market on middle-aged wack) and druggie sister (The Riches' Nichole Hiltz). Director Mark Piznarski knows how to lay a series' groundwork, a talent he's proved by helming the pilots of shows ranging from Everwood to Veronica Mars to Gossip Girl. In Plain Sight could, in fact, be viewed as the anti-Gossip Girl: McCormack's Mary is a loner, not a giggly group-joiner; she favors Western boots made for walkin', not strappy heels made for falling down drunk outside a Manhattan nightclub; she doesn't gossip, she deals in hard-won truths. The more Mary hews to these traits, the better the show is.
I'll be curious to see if viewers, especially the female viewers who'd seem to be the core audience for In Plain Sight, cotton to Mary's poker-faced bravado. Because at its most effective, that hard stare tells you a lot about the questing mind and sure heart of the character behind it. B