Predictably Catch-y: NBC’s ‘Irrational’ doesn’t fear procedural pressure…

No Bones about it, NBC's new primetime procedural is familar but interesting enough to work....

It’s that time of the year again where – writers and strike- delays not withstanding – new shows start to permeate the schedules, peeking their heads about the primetime parapets in hope of a scoring favourable reviews and rapid renewals. According to historical precedent a good few will be gone before Christmas and more won’t make it out of their first season, but with only a handful of episodes ready for most shows this season, the pressure is higher than usual.

Alec Mercer is a world-renowned behavioral scientist with a complicated past but a successful career in working out why people do things. Between lectures, he often lends his expertise to help governments, law enforcement and corporations. His unique unique approach isn’t perfect, but it often gets results. But in a new case, he becomes convinced a self-confessed murderer may actually not have committed the crime. Unfortunately, aspects of the case are also going to ignite glimpses of memories that Mercer himself may have mentally suppressed about a night, years before, that changed the course of his life…



Anyone expecting a radical, breakout success and landmark show from NBC’s The Irrational‘ (based on the novel Predictably Catch by Dan Ariely) may be disappointed to learn that this latest primetime offering is exactly the opposite in many respects: a template network show skewing in theory/action most closely to something like, say, Bones (lots of technobabble/psychology terms amid some of the wanted felons). That’s not to damn the show – it’s perfectly entertaining. Such shows have to rely on their main cast and, fortunately, lead actor Jesse L. Martin (late of Law & Order) has enough charisma to carry the necessary procedural proceedings and occasional bouts of monologuing.

Like Bones, you have to take some of the terminology at face-value (I could never tell you if Temperance Brennan is pointing to the right phalanges and here Mercer’s assertions and observations of the human condition may or may not be accepted practice. In a decent television drama it’s arguably more important that they feel plausible and confident enough in the moment to work to the benefit of the story.  Main characters need both a talent and a quirk and Mercer’s skills are in the human condition, essentially more of a humanist negotiator who can steer you in a direction to do something or guide your decision-making. He’s the kind of person who can’t always solve your problem but can identify that a problem exists and how you should start going about coming up with a solution. As he notes, it’s a complex imperfect science, largely based on odds and variables… and basically betting on likely reactions and outcomes. In some ways it reminds me of a more sympathetic and approachable version of Tim Roth’s bristly Dr. Cal Lightman (in the 2019-2011 FOX show Lie to Me) where the character was an expert in motivations and micro-expressions.

In the opener Dylan Hayes (Caleb Ruminer) an ex-soldier and recovering alcoholic, confesses to having fallen off the wagon and killed his on-off girlfriend in a drunken haze. To the cops, now with not only circumstantial evidence but a confession, it seems a slam-dunk, but coming in as an observer to proceedings, Mercer immediately notes how specific some of Hayes’ memories are and how indistinct the important ones seem. He’s convinced that while Hayes may believe he killed her, it’s largely down to his brain joining dots – and maybe incorrectly. To explore the possibilities, Hayes decides to investigate the AA meetings where both the accused and the victim were members. This gives us a chance for Baker to show and explain his methods.

So far, the obligatory supporting cast feel like the expected, generic rolodex with definite possibilities to grow, or at least to find out their surnames. There’s Mercer’s ex-wife, Maahra Hill’s Marisa (an FBI agent who is sympathetic to Baker’s past, aware of his useful talents and still on good enough terms that Baker and the audience still consider there’s a flame burning ). We also have Ella Canon as Lila, , working out of the Mayor’s office (and another potential flirtation), Travina Springer as Kylie (Baker’s younger sister with whom he shares a house) and also a pair of ‘squinterns‘ in the shape of Molly Kunz’s Phoebe and new hire Arash DeMaxi as Rizwan. These latter two characters get to be the sounding-board for questions and answers that help propel Baker’s explanations and the various investigations forward.

The very nature of procedurals means a certain formula that can often get boring and too familiar and therefore longer-lasting shows need a bit more to survive. There’s the wider arc back-story here that we’re likely to follow across future episodes. Though he makes up easier explanations to explain his scars, Mercer’s burns actually come from a church bombing decades before, where he was the only survivor and he lost several dear friends. Though it has informed his life and career going forward, Mercer is haunted by the fact that he can’t recall details of the event, even with the apparent perpetrator having pushed past him on the way out of the church. A man was convicted of the crime and is now up for parole and Mercer wants to make sure some technicality doesn’t let him back on the streets. As the episode closes out – and we suspect that’s exactly what may be about to happen – a figure appears in the door of the courtroom (conveniently neither we nor Mercer get a clear view of who it is) and Wes Manning (played by Ben Cotton) suddenly sabotages his own plea, ensuring he remains behind bars for the foreseeable future. Mercer is now convinced that the bombing and the conviction are far more complex than they might have appeared and will be trying to find ways to help trigger his memory – all too aware of the way the brain he’s studied can distort such information…

It might not be the edgier addition you’ve been looking for – and you’ll work out the guilty parties long before the characters do – but even on a network notorious for one-season shows, The Irrational may have enough going for it to be a steady primetime player…

'The Irrational  S01  Ep01: Pilot'  (NBC review)
'The Irrational S01 Ep01: Pilot' (NBC review)
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