Meet The Millers

Television still: The Millers starring Margo Martindale and Will Arnett

"We change people's minds without them knowing we did it," goes the explanation. Huh?

It took me a while to get exactly what it is that the team of experts do in the eager-to-impress manipulation drama, Mind Games, starring Christian Slater and Steve Zahn.

It looks like somebody - actually, Kyle Killen, creator of separate-realities cop drama Awake - stuffed Leverage, The Mentalist, Rain Man and Human Behaviour Made Lite 101 into a bag, shook it up and produced this.

Using behavioural studies, psychological research and wild leaps of faith, cast members influence, mould and trick people to steer them into doing exactly what they are anticipated to do.

Meaning if you plant a hot woman next to a man, the male's testosterone level will shoot up and he generally behaves more bravely and riskily (as though we do not know this happens every night in KTV lounges, but I digress).

Or if you are a short, balding boss giving a speech on the far left side of a room, nobody is going to remember what you said.

"What if instead of leaving all the big moments to fate, we manipulate them with 60 years of research into human behaviour?" someone proffers here.

Okay, how about this?

What if you put Slater in yet another doomed TV series?

Well, chances are it would be axed earlier than usual, which is what happened to this show, which was axed after five episodes in the United States.

The funny thing is that in all my years of TV watching, I cannot remember seeing his previous three series - Breaking In (2011-2012), The Forgotten (2009) and the aptly titled secret-agent drama, My Own Worst Enemy (2008).

He and Zahn play polar-opposite brothers. Slater is ex-convict conman Ross Edwards. He runs his manipulation agency with his bipolar eccentricgenius brother Clark, a former professor who is a world-renowned expert in planting suggestions in people's heads. When they go wrong, he freaks out in frenetic scenes in a way that makes you wish you could shoot him with a tranquiliser gun.

But in the service of TV-kind, I persevered with Zahn, who fortunately became somewhat calmer and more tolerable by basically shouting less in the second episode.

The show has the potential to be really smart, but I think it killed itself when, despite its promising, built-in complexity, it staged main plots which sank to almost juvenile levels.

Meanwhile, I have to say upfront, without manipulation or suggestion, that The Millers of Virginia is the funniest domestic sitcom on TV right now. It has been renewed for a second season.

It has a likeable cast with terrific chemistry, is straightforward, has zero in-your-face attitude and - this is absolutely crucial - pits the family members against one another while pulling them together more with every episode.

The way to do this is so simple I wonder why it has not been done more often.

Just place mum with the son and dad with the daughter.

It is probably the best advertisement for divorce - mum and dad are scrapping their union after 43 years when she should have just "rolled off the hood of his car and hobbled away" - in the way a good break-up always makes for a better make-up.

The big comedic name here is Will Arnett (Arrested Development) as TV reporter-son Nathan Miller; the big movie star is Beau Bridges (The Fabulous Baker Boys) as grumpy, absent-minded dad Tom; and the funny, scatty gal is Jayma Mays (Glee) as daughter Debbie.

The breakout comedienne, though, is clearly veteran character actress Margo Martindale as Carol Miller, the centrally placed mum who, on occasion, looks like she is pitted against all three members of her family (plus ancillary hangers-on) and, somehow, always wins the way a mother usually does.

Kudos to the writers here in watching her many roles - including her icy turn as Keri Russell's no-nonsense KGB spy handler in The Americans - and spotting that there is a severely repressed senior-citizen comic dying to break out.

She does not get into physical comedy, wise-a** comebacks or crazy high jinks.

Her appeal is down to two things: a cheeky parental sass, which she nails to perfection, and the generosity of her co-stars, especially the toned-down Arnett, who cede the best lines and situations to her.

I tell you, one episode featuring a Halloween witch, talking parrot and a family impression of Jack Nicholson and Tom Cruise's showdown in 1992's military drama A Few Good Men is so hilarious I am still having a few good laughs.

Arnett's banter with Martindale as her favourite child carries some embarrassing home truths.

"Mum, did you clip my toenails while I was sleeping?" he asks.

You know, I asked my mum the same thing once.

This article was first published on July 17, 2014.
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