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Jesse L. Martin Breaks TV's Pattern of Insufferable Geniuses in NBC's The Irrational

The Law & Order veteran is so charming, he even sells the show's dad humor.
  • Jesse L. Martin stars in The Irrational (Photo: Sergei Bachlakov/NBC)
    Jesse L. Martin stars in The Irrational (Photo: Sergei Bachlakov/NBC)

    Arika Mittman's The Irrational marks a delightful change of pace from similar series with a brilliant leading man who lacks social graces and struggles with basic human empathy. Its lead character Alec Mercer is a genius. He’s almost always the smartest person in the room, several steps ahead of everyone else. He’s also charming, considerate, and most of all, kind. Aside from his intelligence, he’s nothing like Dr. Gregory House or Sherlock Holmes (either the U.S. or British version).

    Although the new NBC drama may oversell its mysteries, what makes it work so well is star Jesse L. Martin, who could have excellent chemistry with an upright vacuum. He connects so well with the supporting cast, the first few episodes feel as if they are from much later in the season. There’s the perhaps inevitable exchange when the district attorney and possible love interest (Sara Canning) calls him "the science guy," and he responds, "That's Bill Nye. I'm actually the behavioral science guy."

    Martin is charming enough to sell this level of dad humor. Somewhat surprisingly, Mercer represents his first lead TV role after nearly 20 years of playing cops and sharing billing on the small screen. Here, he effortlessly combines the laidback charisma of New York City Detective Ed Green from NBC’s Law & Order with the commanding paternal warmth he embodied as Detective Joe West on The CW’s The Flash.

    Alec isn’t a traditional detective, but he assists law enforcement as a consultant with a “very particular set of skills.” However, he’s neither Denzel Washington or Queen Latifah in The Equalizer. He doesn’t kick ass; his superpower is empathy. He talks to people and listens to them, even when they’re literally shooting at him. In the show’s first scene, Alec defuses a tense hostage situation without guns or threats. He confronts the criminal with the logical results of his choices, steering him toward making a better decision. Alec, who’s self-confident enough to remain humble, later concedes this was a calculated risk that could’ve easily gone wrong.

    Mercer is a world-renowned professor of behavioral science. “I know people and why they do inexplicable things,” he explains, but unlike Dr. House’s insistence that “everybody lies,” Alec’s viewpoint isn’t rooted in cynicism. People are complicated, yes, but that’s what makes us human. Alec never loses sight of that humanity, and it’s how he’s able to uncover patterns and motives that even trained investigators tend to overlook.

    Alec teaches at Wylton University, the sort of fictional college that resembles an upscale advertising agency and where Mercer has an impressively stylish corner office. His teaching/crime-fighting assistants are Phoebe (Molly Kunz) and Rizwan (Arash DeMaxi), and no, Phoebe isn’t secretly in love with Alec. They have a professional, respectful relationship, another welcome variation on the “brilliant man leading a team” theme.

    Whenever she needs help with a tough case, FBI agent Marisa (Maahra Hill) calls up Alec; she’s his soon-to-be ex-wife but they remain friends, possibly good enough to eventually reconcile. “Will they or won’t they?” tension can prove tedious, but here it feels natural, and you actually root for them to resolve the issues that ended their marriage. Unlike Dr. Lisa Cuddy on House, Marisa doesn’t maintain an unhealthy Oedipal relationship with Alec. She’s not his mother in all but name, constantly bailing him out, professionally and personally. Instead, Marisa and Alec relate to each other as grown-ups.

    Travina Springer stars as Mercer’s younger sister, Kylie, who is also an expert computer hacker. The only way this could be more plot convenient is if she happened to work at the coffee shop where all the characters hang out. But Springer and Martin have a relaxed, easy rapport as siblings that offers a contrast to Alec’s more professorial role with his assistants. Her good-natured ribbing is peppered with helpful advice, as she counsels him through the aftermath of his breakup.

    Alec’s not without a troubled past: He survived a church bombing 20 years ago that left him with severe burns over 60 percent of his body. (Another actor plays Alec in flashbacks, which is somewhat jarring because Martin doesn’t look that different than he did in 2003.) His only visible injuries are the slight scars on the side of his face that sometimes look like he just shaved with a dull razor. It’s tempting to criticize the burns as superfluous to the larger narrative, but it’s important and refreshing to show someone living with a physical challenge without it defining them. Throughout the first few episodes, Mercer offers different explanations for how he got his injuries — not to manipulate or put people off, but to use the burns as yet another tool for connecting with people.

    The series is inspired by Duke University professor Dan Ariely’s book Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions. Ariely also suffered severe burns, but that’s probably where the inspiration ends (he’s been accused of data fraud and academic misconduct). The church bombing in Alec’s past was an obvious hate crime, and that makes his race a vital plot element and not a casting afterthought. He’s blocked the full memory of the attack, which prevents bringing the person (or people) responsible to justice. As he struggles to recall the specific details, using his own unconventional methods, he discovers there’s perhaps a greater conspiracy surrounding the bombing.

    The Irrational’s interpersonal dynamics provide more compelling reasons to watch than the advertised “mind-bending mysteries,” which are anything but. The first three episodes offer few surprising twists; the killer is usually the person you most expect, but it’s still fun to watch Alec in action. During one case, he stages a fake job interview so the suspect will voluntarily reveal more critical information than he would during a traditional interrogation. The Irrational might not break the procedural mold, but the multi-talented Martin definitely breaks from the procedural tradition of insufferable geniuses running roughshod over their colleagues.

    The Irrational premieres September 25 at 10:00 PM ET on NBC. Join the discussion about the show in our forums.

    Stephen Robinson is a political columnist, arts writer, and theatre maker.

    TOPICS: The Irrational, NBC, Arash DeMaxi, Arika Mittman, Jesse L. Martin, Maahra Hill , Molly Kunz, Travina Springer