"Mary Kills People," which premieres Sunday on Lifetime, feels cut to order for the network's evolving, more substantial brand, as spearheaded splendidly by the 2015 reality-behind-the-fakery reality-show drama "UnREAL."
A medical drama hung on the bones of a thriller — or a thriller with elements of a medical drama — it does have as its complicated heroine a Lifetime type: a divorced working woman, a doctor yet, with an unemployed ex-husband who impugns her mothering skills and a potentially dangerous potential love interest targeting her like a heat-seeking missile. But it goes its own ways.
Caroline Dhavernas plays Mary Harris, an ER physician with a sideline in assisted suicide. Thus the title.
The question of motive is quickly laid on the table: "Sometimes I don't know if you're a compassionate doctor or a serial killer," Mary says jokingly to her roguish yet more practical assistant Des (Richard Short), who has just volunteered to give their clients injections rather than their usual mix of Champagne and Pentobarbital — literally a "drug cocktail" — which the patient must drink on their own (agency is important to her). They are in a fast-food drive-through, to give the conversation its context.
Still, it's never suggested that Mary's work, to which she's committed even at the risk of her liberty or safety is, if a little reckless, anything but admirable; she is not willy-nilly a murderer. (She has personal reasons, we're quickly informed, with details held back.) Created by Tara Armstrong and directed in its entirety by Holly Dale, the series, of which Lifetime is a co-producer, is top to bottom made-in-Canada, where physician-assisted suicide has been legal, as it is in several U.S. states, since last year. (Indeed, that law passed while "Mary Kills People" was shooting). So what happens happens in some other time or place.
It's a mix of tones and styles. The opening scene, in which an assisted suicide goes wrong, is presented essentially as farce; a later case is played to the hilt for pathos. But this is not really a series about the philosophical niceties of euthanasia; that's just a risky business to put the main character in danger, doing an illegal thing she hides from her children and the world (older daughter has a reckless best friend; younger daughter loves their cat). There is melodrama, there is sexiness.
Only two of six episodes were available for review, but complications happen fast – you will not have to wait long to learn whether Jay Ryan's hunky terminal cancer patient Joel is what he seems. But even when the elements of the story are obviously arranged to make trouble for Mary, even when you can see where a scene is going from the start, the suspense stays tense. And however many dumb things its characters do — there are ways, one thinks, that Mary might have better arranged her business — the series doesn't feel dumb.
What ties it together, keeps it in line and most makes it go is Dhavernas. An actress of wit and intelligence, she's perhaps best known as psychologist Alana Bloom on "Hannibal" and for the short-lived "Wonderfalls," in which she played a sullen, sardonic underachiever driven to good deeds by the gnomic instructions of inanimate animals.
Grounded and believable, with the dry, witty, old-fashioned self-assurance of a Barbara Stanwyck or Katharine Hepburn, Dhavernas shades her comedy with drama, and playing drama is never more than a breath away from comedy; her presence distracts you from the occasional bare spot on the carpet, the smudge on the walls, the crack in the ceiling.
'Mary Kills People'
When: 10 p.m. Sunday
Rating: TV-14-DLS (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14 with advisories for suggestive dialogue, coarse language and sex)
Follow Robert Lloyd on Twitter @LATimesTVLloyd