By Josh Wolk
Updated May 28, 2009 at 05:30 PM EDT
Credit: Fox

Welcome back to the Pop Culture Club. A quick explanation for those who are new to this page: I pick a viewing assignment each week, and we meet back here to discuss it on the following Thursday, all while pretending to be doing our actual jobs. Got it? Let’s begin!

I’m going to begin this post with a game. What do these three things have in common?
1. Eating a sandwich with a slice of bologna and a slice of yellow cardboard.
2. Putting on sun-tan lotion, getting a beach chair, and going out to sit in your garage.
3. Watching Mental.

The answer? All of these things are, in theory, similar to things that I like, but in practice are really, really terrible.

The painfully derivative Mental was like Communist surplus House: A brilliant doctor with very unorthodox methods makes his anal coworkers splutter and his tightly wound female supervisor get all hot and bothered between her threats to bring said doc up on charges. Everything was House-y, right down to the two attractive residents fighting an inevitable attraction. It seemed like an oversight that Dr. Mental (Chris Vance) had full use of all four limbs and no drug addiction.

But here was my biggest problem: Dr. Mental is a terrible psychiatrist. (Yes, I know his name was Jack Gallagher, but that name is so appropriately generic that whenever I type it I fall into a deep sleep.) In the writers’ urge to make him unorthodox, they have him making decisions that make no therapeutic sense at all. Let’s note three:


1. When the change-fearing Dr. Hayden-Jones introduces him to herregimented day clinic (complete with uncomfortably sexed-up seniorcitizen), he sets them loose at a calypso party that just happens to begoing on in the hospital yard. (Incidentally, what is more heartlessthan for a hospital to hold a party with a band outdoors? Are theytrying to taunt all the sick patients trapped inside, watching fromtheir windows? Wheee, I’d hate to be bedridden now, I’d miss out on all these good times. Pass the beer!)When Dr. Hayden-Jones-Mermelstein-Jacobs discovers what Dr. Mental hasdone and yells at him for interrupting their routine, he says, “You’vecreated a safe, controlled environment. Life is loud and messy!” Yes,and these patients have proven they can’t handle the loud and messylife right now. That’s why they’re in a mental hospital. Whynot go visit the hospital’s amputees and toss them out on the lawn,too, and tell them to dance? “Life doesn’t have wheels, they’ve gottalearn to join the party!”

2. He invites patients to the staff meeting, because, “This wholesecret society thing isn’t the way to go.” Yes, because what does everygathering of trained scientists really need to be more effective?Someone at the table suffering from acute delusions!

“What do you think we should do for the patient with anxiety disorder in room 452B?”

“I would prescribe Paxil and combine it with intensive behavioral therapy.”

“I would go with Klonopin, and pair it with a talk-therapy approach.”

“Speaking as Jesus Christ, I’d be happy to lay my hands on him, we’ll get this taken care of by lunch.”

3. Dr. Mental makes himself out to be the only martyr who wants tohelp the naked schizophrenic artist. And yet when the episode wraps up,it turns out that he has come to the same conclusion as everyone else: get the guy back on some meds. Except, I guess, he’s the only one whowants to make sure that while medicated, nude Vincent will still beable to draw his cut-rate take-offs of old covers of Heavy Metalmagazine. Yes, thanks to Dr. Mental’s dedication, Vincent will be ableto live with his sister and her kids and continue to draw big-breasted fairies making love to two-headed dragons in the basement. Score one for psychiatry!

And what of the Annabella Sciorra character, whose name is — oh,you’ve got to be kidding — Nora Skoff. Skoff? They can’t even committo that sneering, doubtful moniker! Her role is to walk around shakingher fist at Dr. Mental’s krazy ways and threatening to fire him, andyet at the end, she uses his krazy ways as an object lesson in why Dr.Hayden-Bernstein-Gluck-Manfredi-Feldman should care for her patients asmuch as he does his. So which is it? Is he a dangerous menace or aninspiration for shrinks everywhere? As long as Dr. Skoff is working ina psych wing, she might want to help herself to some lithium.

Oh, and one last thing: Is it too much to ask that when TV writersgive characters signifiers, they take a one-minute time out todouble-check if these symbols are practical? Yes, having Dr. Mentalride a bike everywhere says volumes about what a loosey-goosey freebird he is. Yet having him do it in spread-out L.A. also says volumesabout how long it will take him to get anywhere. That’s not such agreat trait in a doctor who must respond to emergencies. Jeez, Dr.Quinn Medicine Woman could get to a patient faster on a horse.

Before I toss open the boards, let me give next week’s assignment.What better way to get ready for Will Ferrell’s big-screen remake ofLand of the Lost (opening on June 5) than to watch the cheesy pilot ofthe original 1974 series? Will the movie’s effects look even betteronce you’ve seen the cheap stop-motion of Sid and Marty Krofft? Or willwe realize that the show’s charm was in its cheapness, and making a CGIversion is just silly? I’ve embedded the Land of the Lost pilot belowfor your Hulu-ing pleasure, and we’ll meet back here next week todiscuss. Enjoy reliving your childhoods!

So back to Mental: Did anyone here enjoy it? Or did it make you –wait for it, here comes the pun — crazy? How many shows can you listthat feature an unorthodox genius scientist? And are there any shrinksout there who would like to weigh in on Dr. Mental’s techniques?