Even if audiences don't immediately realize it, there are different elements at work behind the scenes of the latest season of USA's hit crime drama "In Plain Sight" with a new showrunner (John McNamara) and new directions for Deputy U.S. Marshal Mary Shannon (played by Mary McCormack). While McNamara is sharpening the visual style of the show and settling into his new duties there are also big storyline changes underway with our lead character recently getting dumped by fiance Raph (Cristian de la Fuente) and possibly navigating the dating scene in episodes to come.
Our Jim Halterman chatted with both McNamara and McCormack last week about how they've both navigated the showrunner change, why McCormack loves her less-than-perfect alter ego and how the show works to seamlessly bring in familiar guest stars into the framework of the show without throwing it off the balance.
Jim Halterman: How was it initially having a new showrunner come in to steer the "In Plain Sight" ship?
Mary McCormack: I was very nervous because I think David Maples created such a beautiful show so I was really nervous but the thing about McNamara is that he was just a fan of the show, which I loved. When we sat down to talk he didn't say, "This is wrong and this is wrong and this needs to shift and the show should be more over here." He didn't have anything like that to say, which was a big relief to me since I like the show. He just wanted to be a part of it. He said, "I love it, I love the combination of it being a procedural, it's a family drama, it's funny, it's serious, it's moving..." All the things he liked about are all the things I liked about it so I was encouraged by that.
John McNamara: I certainly wanted to make the look a little more cinematic. We hired a new DP, new location manager and the crew has done a lot of handheld cinematic style. I kind of like simple stories that drill down deep into the character. The simpler the story, in a way, the more you can spend time to get to know Mary, Marshall (Fred Weller), Brandi (Nichole Hiltz) and the guest stars. I thought that the show was really terrific in the first two seasons and I was a big fan of it but I wanted the episodes to be a little more streamlined and allow to spend more time on character. That was the mandate I set early on.
JH: John, you've worked on shows like "Jericho" and "The Fugitive" which both had their share of action elements. Are you bringing that to "In Plain Sight?"
JM: I think the action has always been a part of the show and I don't think of myself as an action writer per se but I do think that action with a small "a" is character and how a character behaves under the stress of life and death. Circumstances like that never reveal character more. I want to mix the old-fashioned maximum character duress with everyday accessible, relatable issues and I think that's why the show has always done really well. You go from a kitchen scene to a gunfight and they sort of balance with each other. She's a U.S. Marshal! The problems tend to be life and death but if you want to go home with her and there's a new boyfriend and I'm not saying that there is but you want to spend time there, too. As well, I want to expand some of the territory with Marshall because one of the best ways to define Mary is to know Marshall even better and vice versa.
JH: You seem to really be take advantage of New Mexico the same way that "Breaking Bad" does with all that beautiful scenery as a backdrop for the show.
MM: They shoot right here in Albuquerque with us. We're lucky that we use Albuquerque for Albuquerque. A lot of places go to shoot a show where a cactus is but they're shooting Toronto for New York. First of all, Albuquerque is beautiful and cool and I think it really ups the production value of our show. When we shoot shows in LA it has other advantages but on "The West Wing," we were in Burbank so it was difficult because we had to fly the whole cast and crew to DC just to get the great shots of us walking in front of the White House.
JH: One of the things that is so intriguing about Mary Shannon is that she takes care of people in her work but she has a harder time with the people closest to her. How do you approach playing that, Mary?
MM: There are parts of my own person that I relate to in Mary Shannon and then the rest is just a really well drawn character and she was well drawn from the start. There were clues all along about her. In TV, it's not like you pick up a play or novel and read it from start to finish. You never really know so I just try to collect clues as I go. I remember in the first season there was a scene where one of the eyewitnesses was a little boy and he was really sarcastic and had a really strong point of view unlike most 10-year old kids and my voiceover said, "I finally found the man of my dreams and he's 10." That's a big clue!
There was also an episode where I say, "Babies? I don't get 'em? What's with babies?" I just kind of collect clues along the way and there are obviously big clues with her family life with her dad leaving when she was seven and he was a bank robber and his mom was an alcoholic. I think what kind of adult does that create? You come out of the chaos and you either go off the deep end or you become super high functioning in one area of your life, which I think she's become. She likes to control things and she was probably the parent from age seven on in that house so for me that's a lot of the clues. It's a great part and I love how broken she is. She comes from a train wreck house but I also love that she's trying to connect with people even though she's bad at it.
JH: Audiences seem to connect to her because of that. Who wants to see a perfect person saving the day?
MM: Who does? I like that she's too fast, too quick to judge. We're all that way. We all are in our ugly little corners so I think it's really refreshing and certainly fun to play someone more complex. Usually the lead in the show ethically does the right thing and save the day and we don't always save the day. Nobody does.
JH: Now that Mary is technically single? Are we going to see her dating? Maybe with Marshall? You've heard that a lot, right?
MM: We hear it a lot but I don't know! I really don't know what they have planned. Here's the thing - I actually don't know and I don't ever ask because I like to not know. I'm a weirdo. I like not knowing but I imagine if we did that now it would seem premature to me but I'm not in charge.
JM: Without giving anything away, the idea is that life is full of twists and turns and has nothing to do with crime or plot. Life has as many twists and turns as any great crime show.
JH: Guest stars like Allison Janney, Donnie Wahlberg, and Rita Moreno have popped up this season but how do you approach incorporating such familiar faces so their presence never overtakes the show itself?
JM: Again, it comes from character. You try to create a really good character that Allison Janney would want to play and characters about conflict and figuring out what they represents. In our case, we were lucky because Mary knows Allison Janney. We wrote the role (as Allison Pearson, the new U.S. Marshal Service Regional Director) for her thinking we'd never get her but here we are for two episodes and hopefully more later.
JH: You've both been involved with network and broadcast television. How has the experience been different and/or similar?
JM: The similarities are that [both networks] know what they want and they're very clear about that from the beginning. The best relationship you can have with a network or studio is to be on the same page early when you first sit down to meet with them whether it's your own show or someone else's show. It's all about communication, honesty and clarity of vision and one of the terrific things about USA is that they really know what they want they expect their show runners and their stars to deliver that. That is incredibly helpful for a writer/producer.
MM: The shows I've worked on was Steven Bochco's show 'Murder One' and then John Wells's show so I had a great experience because those guys are really good at what they do and they're really in charge. Both shows were run really well and were happy places to be. I don't notice much of a difference here. USA really lets us do our thing. They don't weigh in too much and they don't seem to shy away from Mary being a real character and sometimes that means less likeable than some shows. I have had a great experience and USA really gets the word out and has been so supportive.
"In Plain Sight" airs every Wednesday at 10:00/9:00c on USA.