The commercial networks must think that nobody watches television during the summer. In fact, they all but guarantee it by filling the schedule with a motley assortment of reruns, throw-away pilots, and second-rate reality shows. They don't even bother with original "reality" programming like American Idol or Survivor over the summer.
But that just leaves the door wide open every year for those upstart basic cable channels, which are brash enough to unveil cool, original series during the warm-weather months. And in recent years, there have been plenty of them.
In June of 2005, TNT debuted The Closer, a crime drama showcase for the terrific Kyra Sedgwick, while FX gave us the quirky It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia. The following year USA launched a comedy-drama called Psych, about a fake psychic who's also a crime-fighter.
Last summer the floodgates really opened, with USA's Burn Notice (one of the most underrated shows of the year), TNT's dark Saving Grace, AMC's Golden Globe-winning Mad Men, FX's Damages, and Lifetime's Army Wives.
This year, one of the first potential cable winners out of the gate is In Plain Sight, which premieres with a 90-minute episode at 10 p.m. tomorrow on USA. The series stars Mary McCormack (The West Wing, K Street) as Mary Shannon, a U.S. marshal who works in the highly secretive branch of the federal Witness Protection Program.
The program relocates people and provides them with new identities. Some are career criminals and others are crime witnesses, but they all have one thing in common: Somebody wants them dead. Mary Shannon's job in WITSEC (that's Witness Security) means she must serve as adviser, marriage counselor, therapist, and friend, as well as protector of those under her care.
She gets little support from the local cops, some of whom dismiss WITSEC as "the branch of law enforcement that puts criminals back on the street."
In Plain Sight follows Mary's professional and private life, and it doesn't take long to see that she's definitely better at the former than the latter. While on the job, she can be tender, comforting a scared, tearful young witness, or tough, confronting a bad guy in the men's room of a sleazy bar - where she hilariously makes a bar of soap into a dangerous weapon.
Mary's partner is a smart aleck named Marshall Man (Frederick Weller), whom people naturally call "Marshal Marshall."
In her private life, Mary has trouble connecting with anyone. She's conflicted about her relationship with her on-again, off-again boyfriend, Rafael, played by Chilean actor Cristian de la Fuente (Dancing With the Stars, Ugly Betty). She seems not to want to get too close to Rafael, even though at times she gets really, really close to him.
And he's confounded by her. Right after one intimate encounter, Mary casually brushes him off, and he can't figure out why. "How can someone that burns so hot be so cold?" he asks.
"I don't know," she replies breezily while heading out the door. "It's a great question. Give me a call if you figure it out."
But her indifference is all an act. Once alone in her car, Mary hangs her head and cries.
Her dysfunctional family is another challenge. Little sister Brandi (Nichole Hiltz) is a self-centered brat, while Mom Jinx (Lesley Ann Warren) is a high-maintenance boozer.
Like many of the female leads in the best cable series - Kyra Sedgwick, Holly Hunter (Saving Grace), and Glenn Close (Damages) come to mind - Mary is tough, tenacious, sexy, vulnerable, and not always likeable. It's a winning combination, and McCormack brings a smart, fresh appeal to a role in which she's able to shift effortlessly from drama to comedy and back again.
The series is visually stunning as well, which is no great surprise, because it was shot entirely on location in and around Albuquerque, N.M., with gorgeous mountains and a deep blue sky as the backdrop for nearly every scene.
The show's premise is perfect for bringing in a series of guest stars to play people passing through town in the Witness Protection Program, and that's just what the producers have in mind. Among those who will appear in episodes later this season are Sherry Stringfield (ER), Dave Foley (Newsradio), Wendell Pierce (The Wire), and Percy Daggs III (Veronica Mars).
In Plain Sight was tentatively scheduled to debut June 8, but USA moved it up to this Sunday in order to avoid running up against the season premieres of two other popular cable series - Army Wives and History's Ice Road Truckers. And to build a solid-lead-in, the network has scheduled two popular theatrical movies to run back-to-back immediately prior to the premiere of the new series.
First up is Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, followed by Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest.
With all that going for it - and a good pilot episode as well - USA is giving In Plain Sight the chance to establish itself as the latest cable show to blossom while the mainstream networks are taking a break.