I’m a Jesse L. Martin stan back to the OG Mothership Law & Order (pour one out for Lennie Brisco, y’all), although I admittedly tapped out on The Flash at a certain point. This season, Martin has been back in his old NBC stomping grounds with The Irrational, a different, and dare I say, hopeful, variation on the procedural. Martin plays Alec Mercer, a behaviorist and professor regularly brought in to consult on crime scenes and explain why people behave badly.
Mercer is himself a survivor of a traumatic crime – a church bombing 20 years ago that left him with significant burns and subsequent surgeries to make him whole again. Gifted with a sunny optimism about his insights and theories, he’s a light in the dark amid the things going on around him, which brings everyone in his orbit up a peg instead of doom spiraling.
The series, created by Arika Lisanne Mittman, deftly balances that optimism, wrapping each episode with a hopeful outlook. Think of it as the flip side of a show like Cold Case, which I straight up could not watch because the terrible things people did to each other snowballed into one giant terrible thing that could have been circumvented if just one person in the mix had done something different.
Here, yes, people make awful choices, but in the middle of it, there are teachable moments as Alec explains the psyche behind the action, helping the surviving characters unravel the why and move forward. That includes Alec, who, as we meet him, is doing his best to move on a year out from his divorce with Marissa, an FBI agent who still relies on him as a consultant.
That gets a little muddy when he’s not quite ready to fork his marriage. The first few episodes last fall let that linger a little bit, but as the season progressed, he moved past it, and so did she, with each starting new relationships while retaining their friendship and their working relationship. And that’s served both of them well. With just two episodes left this season (and a second season already ordered last November), I chatted with Maahra Hill, who plays Marissa, earlier this week about the show.
Hill agrees that the series strikes a hopeful tone. “[Every week], Alec pulls all of the things that the episode was about into something that is beneficial for the audience. I love that. And the writers do an excellent job of that,” she explains.
While the series is mostly focused on Alec and his POV, episode 7 last fall, “The Real Deal,” expanded the universe a bit to give Marissa an opportunity to repair her relationship with Alec’s sister, Kylie (Travina Springer), with whom he lives and shares a strong two-way loyalty. “I really appreciated the fact that Marissa kept trying to break that wall down with Kylie, because she was like a sister,” Hill shares.
“When you’re married to somebody, you’re married to their whole family. And usually you just fall in love with everybody. Sometimes I guess there are in-laws that you just don’t, but this is not the case for them. I think she was crazy about the entire family, and I think they were crazy about her, too.”
“And I don’t think anybody ever saw or felt like this divorce would happen. So it was nice to explore the heartbreak that comes from a breakdown in friendship and between two sisters instead of just the [romantic] heartbreak. It’s been most fulfilling for me to explore the dynamics in relationships and the one that she’s had with Alec and navigating this new territory that they’re in at post-divorce, but knowing that they still need each other for work and for personal [reasons] because they do have this strong bond.”
“Sometimes, when people get divorced, you’ve got to choose [your side], and Kylie didn’t understand the reason for the divorce, and obviously that’s her brother, so she made a choice. And it was on Marissa to consistently pursue the relationship and try to help her to understand and to break the walls down a bit. And she’s the bigger sister, she’s the one who would be charged with doing that. It’s been great. Anything that happens in the world of relationships for Marissa is definitely the stuff that I like to explore.”
Hill also appreciates that Marissa and Alec have found their way to a warm friendship that extends to their working relationship, and we saw that amplified in “Scorched Earth,” when Alec was trapped in a fire, revisiting trauma for both of them. “I think that because of what Marissa and Alec share, and what they’ve been through together, that that relationship will always have a certain weight to it,” she points out.
“They definitely are in a healthier place now, and intentionally so, and she’s making every choice that she can to honor the decision to file for divorce. And it’s tricky because she’s also wondering whether or not that was the right choice for her. They’ve only been divorced for a year. A year can fly by and in this case it has, but the time has still passed and she’s doing the best she can.”
“They were together for so long that I think moving on for her feels a little premature, but it’s what she wants to do. She wants to move on, and she does have this chemistry with Jace [Brian King] and she does appreciate his work and their friendship and he’s consistently trying to take her to lunch. He’s always there. They’ve been able to create more substance in the relationship and she’s gonna try to push that forward a little bit more.”
The Irrational was one of the few network series to bank episodes before the tandem WGA and SAG strikes, which gave it an open playing field to find an audience when it premiered last September. It also allowed the cast and crew to watch the first seven episodes before they resumed filming the season’s final four episodes once the strike ended.
“You don’t often get to watch the show [before you] finish [filming] the season. To be able to watch it and get a sense of where your character is and what it is that the writers are looking for, what it is that you want to express and explore, it was just gold to be able to watch it back,” explains Hill.
“Also just because we shoot the show in Vancouver, and on the personal side of being moved over there really fast and then being able to [go home and] come back and kind of get your foothold, you just feel more familiar. You feel more comfortable just naturally after having that kind of a break. On the professional side, it was so good to be able to watch it back, and it was really helpful as far as informing decisions and choices for my character.”
The Irrational finishes out the season this Monday and next Monday at 10 pm/9c on NBC. You can catch the first nine episodes now on NBC.com, On Demand, and streaming on Peacock. Here’s a sneak peek of this week’s penultimate episode and a recap of Alec’s big moments during Season 1 so far.
Photos courtesy of Sergei Bachklakov/NBC; videos courtesy of NBC.
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