‘The Irrational’ Review: Jesse L. Martin Captivates in NBC’s Latest Run-of-the-Mill Procedural

The “Law & Order” alum struts as a world-famous behavioral scientist, juggling academia and hands-on detective work for the FBI

Jesse L. Martin in "The Irrational." (Sergei Bachlakov/NBC)

Like the notion that it’s always 5 p.m. somewhere, there’s nearly always a vintage “Law & Order” airing with do-right Detective Ed Green, played by Jesse L. Martin. So when a new network series arrives with Martin in the lead role, it raises my hopes for must-see TV. (RIP his late, great partner Lennie Briscoe, played by Jerry Orbach).

My irrational self wanted to love this intelligent, well-crafted show — but my rational side was beset by doubts, which the first three episodes available for review failed to dispel.

“The Irrational” stars Martin as Alec Mercer, a world-famous behavioral scientist who straddles between academia and more hands-on pursuits. He is a science guy, but not Bill Nye. The show’s title refers to his belief that even in man’s irrational behavior there are detectable motifs. His preternatural ability to discern these patterns make him indispensable in FBI investigations, such as when they have a kidnapper with a gun holding a baby and its mother hostage, or when a plane crashes under suspicious circumstances.

Like, say, “Bones,” what this does is put a think-outside-the-box guy on the case when the FBI, with their guns and badges, is mired in group-think. It’s a serviceable premise, and the writers fill the episodes with plenty of offbeat behavioral science talk. The show appears heavily researched and, like “Bones,” it drops paragraphs of Behavioral Science 101 into the mix – there’s the Barnum Effect, a cognitive bias where people believe that, for example, the horoscope they read in the newspaper is truly describing their particular personal lives when in actuality the prediction is so generic it could apply to almost anyone.

The show plays out over two timelines. Nearly two decades before, Mercer was badly burned in a church bombing. That explains the vicious scar on the right side of his face that bunches into his neck and disappears into his high collar. While he bears the permanent marks of the event, and carries survivor’s guilt that he lived on when 13 others died in the inferno, he cannot remember enough about the night to discover who was responsible. He needs to bring them to justice. This failure tortures him – and he’s trying an assortment of memory tricks to ferret out clues from his own repressed impressions that might solve the painful case that changed his life.

In the present, every episode has its own individual inciting incident that the FBI just can’t seem to solve without Mercer. Even working with the FBI is fraught: his ex-wife Marisa (Maahra Hill), who remains his partner in investigations, is an agent there. And, after their recent separation, she’s become a free agent in the dating world, which doesn’t please him.

Mercer has moved in with his pink-haired spunky sister, Kylie (Travina Springer) who playfully serves to remind her big brother that he isn’t all that. While she helps him find answers with her Googling skills, she also serves as a script vehicle to call him on his personal shortcomings and blind spots. Of his personal relationships, this brother-sister connection seems to be the show’s freshest.

The remainder seems clunky and inelegant in that camel is a horse made by committee way. Mercer’s two competitive assistants strive to ferret out the biggest clues despite their greenness in real-world situations. Their characters are generic and add little flavor. The cases themselves are no more astounding than recycled network investigative dramas.

The behavioral ideas are kind of cool. Mercer’s trick of talking to the culprit-of-the-week, and teasing out the logical extensions of the villain’s behavior until the perp sees no alternative to surrendering fascinates. Martin warms up the hero considerably and his delivery is believable, even when he’s quoting bricks of explanatory material. He can do a star’s heavy-lifting of the narrative arc without breaking a sweat. But this behavioral science specialty becomes the juicy spinal fluid in an otherwise dry, run-of-the-mill series.

“The Irrational” premieres Monday, Sept. 25, at 10 p.m. ET/PT on NBC.