In “Shut Eye,” a new series premiering Wednesday on Hulu, Jeffrey Donovan plays a fake psychic — that is, a con man — whose life begins to change after being (literally) kicked in the head. He hears voices; he hallucinates. He seems actually to see the future. “Time is out of joint,” he says, paraphrasing Hamlet.
We are in Los Angeles, in the world of storefront fortune tellers. Local-color montages and dropped place names, from Olympic Blvd. to Descanso Gardens help mask the fact that the series is mostly shot in Vancouver.
The mechanics and misdirections of psychic scams have been well-documented and are by now hardly secret; CBS got seven seasons of “The Mentalist” out of them. But if we know anything about people it is that, being both easily swayed and absurdly stubborn, we can prove impervious to facts — many would in fact rather pay no attention to the man behind the curtain. In a way, “Shut Eye” is the perfect show for this historical moment.
As was Tony Soprano when we met him, Donovan's Charlie Haverford is a middle-rung criminal; there are people above him — a Romani family overseen by Fonzo (Angus Sampson), who is in turn overseen by his mother, Rita (Isabella Rossellini) — who take a cut of his business, and people below him, from whose business he takes a cut. A failed magician turned swindler, he’s a low-aiming, get-along type whose wife, Linda (KaDee Strickland), a bit of a Lady Macbeth, would prefer he aim higher. To this, Charlie responds, “Some people just don’t want as much as you do.”
Created by Leslie Bohem, who wrote the Pierce Brosnan volcano film “Dante’s Peak,” the show runs hot and cold, loose and stiff from scene to scene, sometimes pulling back a curtain on a hidden world but just as often running down tracks that nearly two decades worth of TV anti-heroism have worn thin. It wears its research on its sleeve, at times a little obviously: In the course of writing this review, I found one speech, regarding a legend about the Crucifixion and God granting Gypsies the right to steal “without moral consequences,” with only slightly different language in a 2001 article in Police: The Law Enforcement Magazine (www.policemag.com).
Just as “The Sopranos” was more interesting when it pictured Tony as a treatable patient rather than as the irremediable thug he turned out to be, the most promising parts of “Shut Eye” — whose title, research shows, is an insider term for a mind-reader who comes to believe his powers are real — are those that deal with Charlie’s altered state. Susan Misner plays the psychedelic neurologist he turns to for help: “Cosmic joke or karma,” she tells him, “either way you’re in trouble.”
Much of the rest of the action and suspense — four episodes out of 10 were available for review — involves characters wriggling out of situations for which they should rightly be called to account. This raises the question — and it is one that hovers over many shows — why should we care about them, other than out of perversity? “Shut Eye” is slow to provide an answer, or to seem particularly interested in a realistic way, in what makes these people tick or keeps them connected.
But if the characters, humanized with the usual references to food and pop culture, can seem more ordered-up than organic, the cast is good. Also featured are Mel Harris of “thirtysomething” renown as a rich mark; Emmanuelle Chriqui as a twisted hypnotist, another of the series’ several sociopaths; and David Zayas as an underworld client of Charlie’s.
Donovan, formerly the star of “Burn Notice,” is naturally likable, which suits the part. But that Charlie may not be the worst of these people means he also has room to worsen.
There is an arc to play out, to be sure, and Bohem and show runner David Hudgins (“Friday Night Lights”) clearly don’t mean to put all their tarot cards on the table at once. Indeed, as with HBO’s “Westworld,” part of the new experience of watching television series is wondering just what game the writers are playing. In the meantime, it’s all villains and victims.
When: Any time, Wednesday
Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)
Follow Robert Lloyd on Twitter @LATimesTVLloyd