The fall TV season is in shambles, a mix of reruns and reality that is the inevitable result of studios failing to negotiate acceptable contract terms with standout actors and writers early enough in the summer. Anticipating this outcome, NBC has withdrawn several of its originals already on the can, so the network is able to put very few new shows on the schedule that are not imports.
“The Irrational,” a pretty standard procedural starring Jesse L. Martin, is one of them.
It makes some sense to see Martin return to the world of law enforcement and crime, since he’s best known for his role as Detective Ed Green on “Law & Order.” Here he plays a college professor named Alec Mercer, a behavioral scientist who consults with the FBI and solves their cases based on behavioral science. Of course, why not? “People are irrational,” he says, “but predictably so.”
Like “Castle” and “The Mentalist” before it, “The Irrational” is based on the idea that every investigation needs an outsider who sees things with clearer eyes and understands them better. To read people. This is a tough allegory, but no matter how you look at it, it’s copaganda.
Adapted from Dan Ariely’s bestselling novel “Predictively Irrational,” the series is as ordinary as it seems. (Creator Arika Mittman’s credits include “Timeless” and “Elementary.”) It’s neither visually distinctive nor has the light-touch pacing that suggests it’s a success. Still, Martin is the kind of actor that makes you think maybe I’ll keep watching. Cocky and fast-talking, Alec drives a vintage sports car (he could have sworn he was complaining about how little he gets paid as a professor) and his ex-wife is an FBI agent. Of course he is.
Alec also has barely noticeable scars on his face from a long ago church bombing that left burns on over 60% of his body. This biographical detail, revealing the details of this terrible event and who was behind it, turns into the ongoing serialized story that has seemingly become almost mandatory these days, even for a case-of-the-week series. So much for the main characters who are haunted by a traumatic past! Can’t we have some fun with Alec using his wit and intelligence to outmaneuver everyone around him?
I always think of “Columbo.” We know nothing about the character except that he doesn’t carry a gun, owns a basset hound, and occasionally mentions Mrs. Columbo. That’s it, that’s all we know. And that’s enough. The story is the focus.
Columbo was also a character blessed with great writing (at least until the ’80s), and “The Irrational” doesn’t play on that level. Maybe it’s not fair to expect this, but it’s possible to make solid, mid-level entertainment that’s a few notches better than this.
Martin’s presence can only elevate “The Irrational” so much. It’s a general exercise, neither good nor bad, it’s just there. Perhaps in the midst of a sea of reruns and reality shows, this will be enough to satisfy viewers.
“Irrational” — 2 stars (out of 4)
Where to watch: Mondays at 9pm on NBC (and streaming on Peacock)
Nina Metz is a Tribune critic.