A good TV procedural is hard to come by. The mental equivalent of a good bowl of chicken soup, it doesn’t have to be especially clever or well-written and you’re okay if the performances are not all that noteworthy or the plots are hackeneyed… you’d almost prefer it, in fact. Don’t get me wrong: cleverness is always welcome, but there are days when all you want is to come home to undemanding entertainment.
Good guy finds bad guy after chasing a couple of bad leads. All done and over with in a little over 40 minutes plus commercials. Fini.
Sometimes, as in the case of the original CSI, you get hooked because you’re seduced by the innovative packaging and then settle in as the old wine begins to take effect. At others, as in the case of Bones, you stay for the chemistry. It’s tempting to think of an alternate world where every procedural would be The Wire or (going further back in time) Homicide: Life on the Street, but there are nights when all you want is to kick off your heels and watch some good ol’ L&O: SVU or check out what Horatio’s shades have been up to on CSI: Miami.
The Mentalist, which airs Tuesdays at 9 on CBS, is a worthy addition to this line-up.
Simon Baker, who frequently makes me forget that blondes aren’t really my thing, plays the mentalist in question – Patrick Jane, an ex-phony psychic whose smug cleverness cost him his family when a serial killer named Red John took serious exception to the self-aggrandizing lies he told on TV about tapping into the “true demonic evil” emanating from the infamous killer. Now a consultant with the California Bureau of Investigation, he uses the skills he honed in his previous incarnation as a conman for the greater good: solving crime.
The series opens with Jane walking coolly into the home of a murdered teenager and convincing her mother to share with him her inner-most fear, so terrible, she doesn’t even want to say it out loud: that her husband was a child-molester who killed their daughter. It doesn’t end well.
- Jane has his own method.
- Jane is very charming. And very good-looking. And very disarming. And lord, but he can wear the hell out of a three-piece suit.
- Jane is very good at what he does.
- Jane’s methods may work, but they don’t always work the way you hope they will.
- Jane’s co-workers i.e. the cops aren’t all that thrilled with him.
Perfect. All the things that make a classic procedural. As an added bonus, you have the satisfaction of arriving at the same conclusion as he did (you’d have to be majorly clueless not to) at right about the same time as him, without knowing the extra bits of information he apparently picked up from the photos tacked on to the fridge door and this leaves you with just the right amount of intrigue.
How did he know that? you wonder and ignore the fact that you deduced the same thing without knowing all the cool things he found out. He might be on the side of law and order right now, but he still operates on the parlor trick principle: distract the dope’s attention.
This quirk that runs throughout the show i.e. Jane showing off in various ways which really lead to nothing important, runs a high risk of turning annoying. Fortunately for The Mentalist, however, it has the same thing going for it as yet another favorite procedural, House M.D. : an irresistible lead actor.
Even though the two shows have little in common other than the predilection of the lead characters to swoop in five minutes before the end of the show and solve the puzzle (except, again, in the case of House, I really don’t know what the answer is – other than that it’s not lupus because it’s never lupus!), their lead actors are charismatic enough to carry it off. And while you’d think Baker has an easier job of it, as the series has progressed this season, it’s clear that Jane is not as straightforward a character as he appears.
For one thing, he appears to have been truly vile in his former life – every time you feel bad for him as he remembers his murdered family and has his periodic run-ins with Red John, there comes an episode which illustrates just how awful he was as a human being. And then Baker allows you a glimpse of the hollowness behind his everpresent smile, and you’re back to sympathizing with him.
I have to say, I like it.