The Mentalist

For some reason, I’m not a big TV guy, but every once in awhile I’ll get the urge to buy a show I’ve heard something about- if it’s on sale, I usually will.  Yesterday, I came across the first season of the Mentalist for$27 at BJ’s.  I’ve watched the first 10 episodes and here’s a kind of review.  Despite the surface similarity to the USA show Psych (they both involve consultants with fake psychic powers), the Mentalist actually plays more like Columbo.  In Psych, you’re shown, if only briefly, the clues Shawn notices.  You may not catch exactly what they mean- you don’t have his extraordinary memory for details after all- but you’re mostly following along.

The Mentalist’s extraordinary success has less to do with observable details (to the viewer) and more to do with his technique/personality.  Columbo was successful, in part, because he played a bumbling naif who opponents constantly underestimated.  And he was intriguing because that feigned innocence got the viewer thinking.  What was he up to?  There’s something of that in the Mentalist.  He’ll wander off, occasionally, to do something that seems totally random, but which turns out to be pertinent.  Most of these episodes work very well.  In one, for instance, they head to Nevada to and the Mentalist spends a large chunk of the episode gambling, while his team is trying to solve a crime.  Why?  You find out and it’s fairly clever.   Later, you can trace the plot so that the odd actions make a kind of logical sense.

More than a few episodes don’t work this way.  The Mentalist does things that seem inexplicable, even afterward, and he comes to conclusions that we never understand.  In one episode he’s trying to exonerate a man who was found in a room with a dead body.  The room was locked from the inside and therefore everyone insists that he must have been the only one in the room.  The “how did the real murderer escape from a room locked from the inside” is a key plot question.  But, the Mentalist just solves it.  There’s no Eureka moment.  There’s no clue anywhere, as far as I can tell, that could lead the viewer to the right conclusion.  It just comes out of nowhere.  Columbo’s “oh, and more thing” randomness, in contrast, is always a real clue for the viewer.

There’s another type of “solution” which I’ll call the “pop-psychic for the non-psychic” gambit.  It involves The Mentalist just “knowing” that someone is innocent or guilty- telling the truth or lying.  When asked to explain his remarkable intuition, he’ll say something like “it was in her eyes”.  Another variation of this is the “look into his or her eyes and mystically make them spill their guts” technique.

This is all baffling and stupid given the show’s premise.  The Mentalist became a consultant because his fake psychic career caused a serial killer to murder his wife and daughter.  He is now reflexively and rigidly anti-mysticism.  More than a few episodes revolve around this stance.  But, it’s hard for the viewer to tell (since he rarely bothers to technically explain these “feelings”), a lot of the time, why his “intuitions” aren’t as mystical as the stuff he decries.  It seems more mystical in some ways.  Traditional mysticism has a system.  That’s why we can watch Star Wars and not guffaw at the Force.  Because given the rules of the universe,  there’s nothing strange about it.   The Mentalist inhabits a rational world, but frequently resorts to non-rational solutions.  It detracts from an otherwise compelling characters and story.

And the characters are pretty compelling- wafer thin, like all the characters in procedurals, but compelling nonethless.  Well drawn, anyway.  Simon Baker, who plays the Mentalist, is a remarkably nice fit for the role.  Charming and breezy, but vaguely haunted; arrogant, but kind.  Granted, it stretches Baker’s smile (his only real talent) to the breaking point, but it all comes together nicely.  You get enough of the character to care what happens to him, but not so much that he loses the mystique he needs to pull off some of the deus ex machina-esque solutions.   The supporting characters all have fairly distinct personalities (again, in context).  Would I recommend it?  Probably only if you’re a big fan of procedurals.  Despite the flaws it’s an above average example of the genre.  Personally, I probably won’t watch past the season I own (I need through-plotlines in my stories to maintain interest), but I don’t regret buying it.

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  1. October 9, 2009 at 2:48 am

    I don’t know If I said it already but …Excellent site, keep up the good work. I read a lot of blogs on a daily basis and for the most part, people lack substance but, I just wanted to make a quick comment to say I’m glad I found your blog. Thanks, 🙂

    A definite great read….

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