As mid-season additions go, ABC’s new dramedy Mind Games doesn’t wield the flash of a big-name cast or come with a boatload of advance hype. But what it lacks in sizzle, it makes up for with a quirky likeability, relying on an appealing blend of head and heart, with zip-quick dialogue and oddball characters reminiscent of J.J. Abrams’ TV work. While shows like this – not procedural enough for casual viewers, and difficult to categorize – often struggle to find an audience, there’s enough promise in the first two episodes to anticipate a full-season pickup, provided the ratings game cooperates.

Mind Games follows Clark (Steve Zahn, Rescue Dawn) and Ross Edwards (Christian Slater), brothers with varying talents related to understanding and manipulating human behavior. While Ross – a former con man – is the business mind, Clark is the psychologist, and their dream is to run a firm which employs their understanding of human motivation to manipulate outcomes for those in need.

In this vein, the pilot episode followed the Edwards brothers on their error-prone attempt to build their client list by accepting the case of a mother seeking to convince her insurance agency to approve an experimental surgery for her son. In a riveting bit of Leverage-style hijinks, Clark and teammate Miles Hood (Gregory Marcel) concocted a scenario whereby they would manipulate the insurance company rep into a subconscious  belief he was the kind of person who did good to people in need. To achieve this outcome, teammate Latrell Griffin (Cedric Sanders) posed as an aggressive vagrant who harassed another member of the team, Megan Shane (Megalyn Echikunwoke) in front of the insurance rep at a bus stop the morning of his key meeting with the mother and son. When the rep intervened and drove the vagrant away, he moved on to his meeting possessing the unconscious suggestion that he’s a Good Samaritan, influencing him to approve the experimental surgery. Sound plausible? Creator Kyle Killen (Lone Star) is hoping you do.

As set pieces go, the scene involving the bus stop and a later one involving a fake news conference were straight-up Wag the Dog-style shenanigans, and foreshadowed the direction the show will take in future episodes to round out its spring run. Mixed in with this framework, however, was Clark’s attempt to come to grips with his own bipolar disorder, as well as some backstory drama involving Ross’s ex-wife, whom he brought to the team to help keep Clark’s psychological issues at bay. The addition of Jaime Ray Newman as a con woman from Ross’s past with secrets of her own provides even more interpersonal material.

Both leads are compelling and well-cast. Zahn is wacky and completely, heart-breakingly believable as a man at the mercy of his bipolar disorder. Slater provides the straight-man aura, but his squinty-eyed scheming gives him an unpredictable edge. This show will succeed or fail based on the audience’s ability to track with these two charismatic leads. Based on the first two episodes, it would seem that Mind Games is going for a Lie to Me, Numbers-style show, mildly cerebral, full of humanity, and with enough suspense to keep the audience engaged for the whatever antics the charismatic cast can dish up.

*Published 3/7/2014