[Warning: This story contains spoilers for The Irrational, Season 1, Episode 1, "Pilot." Read at your own risk!]
Why do people make irrational decisions? That is the question at the heart of The Irrational, one of two NBC procedural dramas (along with Shanola Hampton and Mark-Paul Gosselaar's Found) to debut this fall amid the WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes in Hollywood.
Created by Arika Lisanne Mittman and inspired by Dan Ariely's bestselling nonfiction book Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions, the latest NBC series follows Alec Mercer (Law & Order alum Jesse L. Martin), a world-renowned professor of behavioral science who lends his expertise to authorities to solve an array of high-stakes — and at times high-profile — cases involving governments, corporations, and everyday civilians.
With his unconventional approach to understanding human nature, Alec and his team are able to solve illogical puzzles and perplexing mysteries. But for the better part of the last two decades, Alec has been unable to crack his most personal case to date: the identification of the perpetrators in a church bombing that killed 13 people (including his close friend) and left him badly burned over 60 percent of his body (including the right side of his face).
"Alec has suffered a trauma, and that's opened him up to being compassionate," producer-director Jesse Warn, who has directed episodes of Spartacus, The Vampire Diaries, The Originals, Arrow and Supergirl, told TV Guide. "Even though he is a very cerebral and very analytical character, my feeling is that his life events have also made him very warm and inquisitive but compassionate to humans, and also very curious about what can drive people to make irrational decisions, even in the face of factual evidence."
The pilot episode, which shows how the writers have taken real-life psychological concepts (many from Ariely's own book) and applied them to fictionalized characters and circumstances, finds Alec attempting to negotiate with an armed suspect, who has held a baby and woman hostage, by using "paradoxical persuasion." Viewers soon discover that the FBI agent standing next to Alec during his successful negotiation is his ex-wife, Marisa (Maahra Hill), whom he first met in the hospital after the bombing attack.
Although Alec has moved out of their house and moved in temporarily with his sister Kylie (Travina Springer), who does "some independent work involving computers and IT" that will come in handy during investigations, Alec and Marisa are forced to work together on a new case almost every week.
Early on in the premiere, Marisa tells Alec that his ability to "divorce emotion from reason" is both why she married him and why they decided to split up. But Warn thinks there is something familiar about the current source of tension between the exes, who "obviously still like each other, connect at that cerebral level, and still appreciate what the other one is good at," Warn says.
"If you have an ex, just because they're your ex doesn't mean now you don't have any feelings for them personally. Maybe there's a little bit of a flame still burning there," explains Warn, who directed the second episode. "That's what you see in the real world, and I think [Mittman] has done a great job of putting those types of truths into the characters and the dynamics, like, 'Man, we're separated for [some] reasons, but there's also so many reasons why maybe it could still work out.' We're torn as people."
That push and pull between the past and present "leads to some awkward personal moments too, which the show has a lot of fun with," he adds. "I think what the show's really good at is presenting mysteries and character dynamics that can have conflict but at the same time always having a hopeful trajectory. You'll see that friction at times between Alec and Marisa, but there's always a hopeful tone."
Alec's inner circle, which helps ground him when he becomes too caught up in his work or his past trauma, doesn't end with his ex-wife and sister; it also extends to his graduate students, Phoebe (Molly Kunz) and Rizwan (Arash DeMaxi), for whom he has a lot of time, care, and patience, and with whom he takes on more of a mentorship role.
"Kylie's his [biological] sister, Phoebe and Rizwan are his associates, but they form a family," remarks Warn. "What's great about the way the show's developed is through Kylie, Rizwan, and Phoebe, you, time and again, get to see his humanity. You get to see how he has these really warm and human relationships. Kylie is just full of life and can put him in his place in a way that, as a professor and an expert in his field, you might not see in the working environment."
Although the show will entice viewers with the puzzle-of-the-week to be solved, Warn thinks the show, which will consist of 10 episodes this season, offers a unique and substantive exploration of human character, which may set it apart from the abundance of procedurals on network television right now.
"It honestly is a show where each week you feel like you get smarter when you watch it. You continue to learn and get these little tidbits about human behavior, and you get to see human experiments, different puzzles, and set-ups and learn real reasons why people might behave a certain way, despite the factual evidence," Warn says. "And in that sense, I feel the show is of course a who-dun-it, but it's more so a why-dun-it. Why are people doing this? Why are people behaving the way they behave? I think that's a really nice point of difference for our show."
In the final minutes of the pilot, Alec and Marisa attend the parole hearing of Wes Banning, the lone wolf who was suspected to have bombed the church. But when a mysterious figure shows up in the courtroom, Wes has second thoughts about his release and does not express remorse for his actions, suggesting that he did not act alone in the attack and that someone else has been pulling the strings in the operation. Simply put, the individuals who seriously injured Alec are still at large.
"Suffice it to say, the character traumas in Alec's life are important," Warn previews of the overarching mystery of the series, "and through the course of the season we will learn more about the bombing and the audience will have some answers."
The Irrational airs Mondays at 10/9c on NBC. Episodes stream the next day on Peacock.