Review: Jesse L. Martin is back in procedural-land on NBC's new 'The Irrational'

Nina Metz, Chicago Tribune on

Published in Entertainment News

The fall network TV season is in shambles, a mix of reruns and reality that is the inevitable result of the studios failing to negotiate agreeable contract terms early enough in the summer with striking actors and writers. Anticipating this outcome, NBC held back a couple of its originals that were already in the can, which is why the network is able to put a very slim number of new shows that aren’t imports on the schedule.

“The Irrational,” a fairly standard procedural starring Jesse L. Martin, is one of them.

Seeing Martin back into the world of cops and crime makes a certain kind of sense since he might be best known for his years on “Law & Order” as Detective Ed Green. 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? Sure, why not? “People are irrational,” he says, “but predictably so.”

Like “Castle” and “The Mentalist” before it, “The Irrational” is premised on the idea that every investigation needs an outsider who sees things with clearer eyes and can read people. It’s a hardy trope, but it’s copaganda no matter how you look at it.

Based on Dan Ariely’s bestselling novel “Predictably Irrational,” the show is as pedestrian as it sounds. (Creator Arika Mittman’s credits include “Timeless” and “Elementary.”) It’s neither visually distinctive nor does it have the light-touch pacing that shows like this thrive on. Even so, Martin is the kind of actor who makes you think, well, maybe I’ll keep watching. Cocky and fast talking, Alec drives a vintage sports car (coulda sworn he was just complaining about how little he’s paid as a professor) and his ex-wife is an FBI agent. Of course she is.

Alec also has barely perceptible facial scarring from a long-ago church bombing that left him with burns on more than 60% of his body. That biographical detail — unraveling the details of this terrible event and who was behind it — becomes the ongoing serialized storyline that is all but mandated these days, apparently even for a case-of-the-week series. Enough with lead characters haunted by a traumatic past! Can’t we just have some fun with Alec using his wits and intelligence to outmaneuver everyone around him?

I always think back to “Columbo.” We know nothing about the character except he doesn’t carry a gun, owns a basset hound and occasionally makes mention of a Mrs. Columbo. That’s it, that’s all we know. And it’s enough. The story is the focus.


Columbo was also a character blessed with terrific writing (at least until the ‘80s) and “The Irrational” isn’t playing at that level. Maybe it’s not fair to expect it to, but it’s possible to make solid, middlebrow entertainment that’s a tick or two better than this.

Martin’s presence can only elevate “The Irrational” so much. It’s a generic exercise, neither good nor bad but simply there. Maybe, amid a sea of reruns and reality shows, that is enough to satisfy audiences.

"The Irrantional" can be viewed Monday evenings on NBC (and streaming on Peacock).


Nina Metz is a Tribune critic.


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