Although I have it on the authority of Martin Scorsese and Wikipedia that the federal witness protection program does exist, I find the whole business hard to swallow. Outfitting people who know too much, or live with people who know too much, with new names and fake IDs and shipping them off to unfamiliar cities to playact forevermore -- it seems no more probable to me than shooting them into space or turning them into trees. (That's what Zeus would do.)
In any case, there is certainly some drama to be made from the subject -- or some comedy. There was "Meadowlands," a British import to Showtime about a whole town full of protected witnesses, and the Steve Martin comedy "My Blue Heaven" a long while back, and "GoodFellas," of course, and, obliquely, "The Riches," which also involves lying to the new neighbors.
Now comes USA's "In Plain Sight," as in the thing that you sometimes hide in, which looks at it all from the police's point of view. It mixes up the drama and the comedy, with an emphasis on the latter, and fits companionably with USA's other character-driven crime series, "Monk," "Psych" and "Burn Notice," though it's more realistic, or perhaps just less of a cartoon, than any of them.
Federal marshals Mary Shannon (Mary McCormack, "The West Wing") and Marshall Mann (Frederick Weller) -- that's Marshal Marshall Mann -- spend their days acclimating witnesses to a new life and identity in Albuquerque, or carting them around to one desert jurisdiction or another. Along the way, they banter; at times they bicker.
After work, and occasionally during, Mary has personal issues to resolve, revolving mostly around her boyfriend (Cristian de la Fuente), her mother, Jinx (Lesley Ann Warren, whom it is nice to see again), and troublesome sister, Brandi (Nichole Hiltz), who has come to town from New Jersey toting a suitcase full of her boyfriend's crystal meth. (Warren and Hiltz do lovely work in the B stories as mutually rudderless mother and daughter.) Typical of a sidekick, we see nothing of Marshall's private life. Perhaps he has none: His only friend, he says, is Mary -- whose only friend is he, says she.
Sunday's long pilot is somewhat overworked and overwritten, with a surfeit of likely suspects -- including bickering wiseguy types I'd hoped not to see for a while after "The Sopranos" cut to black -- cluttering up an already confused and finally tiring mystery.
It is also a little too insistent on Mary's being hot stuff, a point that does not really need to be underlined, and she is made a little more outrageous than is good for her.
Later episodes, however, trim the weeds and turn down the gas, and by Episode 4 -- a desert stand-off scenario featuring comedian Dave Foley as a mouthy prisoner -- it is clicking quite nicely.
The plots are a little obvious -- you can usually stay a jump or two ahead of the revelations -- but the actors keep you well distracted.
Most every cop or detective show is a paean to capability -- their common central pleasure is watching a person who knows how to take care of business take care of it -- and McCormack comes across as a woman to be reckoned with: tough but complicated and attractive in the been-around-some manner of Kyra Sedgwick in "The Closer" and Holly Hunter in "Saving Grace." (I'd say there's a pinch of Lauren Graham as Lorelai Gilmore in there, as well.) She has a deft comic touch, hits no wrong notes, and her chemistry with Weller develops quickly.
Tall, with a good head of hair, Weller is the more conventionally pretty of the two, and the more contained. He knows his Bach, speaks Russian and sign language, and has practical knowledge both of field surgery and English grammar. When a hood asks, "Take me in, what for?" he answers, "For ending an interrogative with a preposition."
He and Mary have a boss (Paul Ben-Victor), who is smaller than either of them, and quite funny.
The production values are high. Albuquerque plays itself, to good effect. It wouldn't be the worst place to start a new life, if such things happen.
'In Plain Sight'
Where: USA Network
When: 10 to 11 p.m. Sunday
Rating: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14)