For several years I have watched The Mentalist. Other than my wife and myself, I do not know anyone who else who watches it. This disparity is interesting, considering that The Mentalist has been one of the most watched shows on television in the past few years. It is also currently winning the largest audience among a Thursday night lineup full of historically popular shows. So what is it all about?
On the surface, The Mentalist looks like any other crime show on television. I usually am not drawn in by ubiquitous crime shows like CSI and Law and Order. When I lived in Peru last year, however, The Mentalist had an interesting ad campaign. One of the things that initially appealed to my curiosity was how the wrist watch of the show’s star, Simon Baker, was being promoted as a glamorous item you could buy.
Before I go further, I should mention that watching tv in Peru was much more enjoyable for me than in the United States. The reason related to how most American television shows are organized there by brand, rather than by networks. In other words, we had the Warner Channel, Sony Entertainment Television, and so on. They would frequently show full-length movies in addition to heavily promoting previews of shows you could watch (yay!). I actually KNEW when shows came on thanks to the frequent previews, which as a person with a young child is half the battle.
Getting back to The Mentalist and the Latin American ad campaign, the selling of the watch was emblematic of a larger trend. The Mentalist’s lead character was depicted in Latin American media as a slick, upper class, James Bond type. I did a little reading up on what the show was about, especially because as anyone can wonder, what the hell is a Mentalist anyway?
The first thing I discovered was that the show was created and written by Bruno Heller. He’s definitely not a household name, but as an avid fan of the excellent epic HBO Series Rome I knew that Heller had written that masterpiece of a show. I was instantly hoping The Mentalist would help fill the void left in my TV lineup when Rome ended.
What’s interesting is that The Mentalist is nothing like Rome! Nothing like it at all! Even the writing seems totally different. But it clearly shows that Bruno Heller knows how to create some damn good shows.
The show takes place in California, where a crime investigation unit has enlisted the help of a curious consultant known as Patrick Jane, played by Simon Baker, to help them solve murders and other serious crimes. Jane is “the Mentalist.”
As the show defines the term in its opening sequence, a Mentalist is “someone who uses mental acuity, hypnosis, and/or suggestion. A master manipulator of thoughts and behavior.” Jane fits the bill, serving as a master psychologist who is constantly leading suspects into traps that they will not expect. But beyond these traits Jane has an interesting backstory.
Prior to joining the Crime Investigation Team, Jane was a psychic to the celebrities and rich, but made his living based on deception and fakery. Basically, he shamelessly ripped people off. He fed them “lies they wanted to hear” about people with whom he claimed to communicate with beyond the grave.
During this time a serial killer named Red John begins to terrify Californians. He has signature tells that mark his kills, including a creepy red smiley face he paints on the walls with blood where his victims lie. Jane goes on to a TV talk show and casually calls the killer a coward. Red John then kills Jane’s wife and daughter, basically arguing that Jane is full of shit and a liar who was not really a “psychic.” He exposes Jane, aiming to teach him some kind of lesson about human nature and morality (aren’t serial killers always trying to do that?).
These events all take place years before the show’s timeline begins. While the show has many episodes that do not concern Red John, the show’s story arc over 2 + seasons has primarily focused on Patrick Jane’s hunt for the murderer of his family and Jane’s subsequent quest for redemption after living life as a crook.
So beyond the basic story arc, why is The Mentalist so enjoyable? The short answer: Simon Baker.
Rarely is the star of a show so charismatic that he or she can essentially carry a one hour show on his or her own. But that’s what Simon Baker does in The Mentalist. He is able to portray a person that seems believable despite having so many eccentric traits. For instance, Patrick Jane almost always wears a dress-up vest (getting back to the stylish image portrayed in the Latin American ad campaign). He’s also always drinking tea, and basically seems to live on the couch of his police unit. In his dealings with people, he’s charming, intelligent, annoying, a smart-ass, and exceedingly compassionate within seconds of one another. Yet despite these odd mixes of panache and varied social interactions, we can still believe that Jane is a real person. The supporting cast of the Mentalist is also good, and the leader of the investigative unit, Agent Lisbon, has an overly flirtatious relationship with Jane that eventually will have to run its course (this is TV you know).
If there are any weaknesses to The Mentalist, on a week to week basis they mostly concern the occasional lack of a coherent narrative to the crime stories in the episodes. Dare I say it though– they really don’t matter because they all end up the same anyway. We are mostly watching the show for Patrick Jane’s antics, happy to go along for the ride.
A bigger weakness that threatens the show’s longevity will concern how the Red John storyline comes to a close. So far, we have had the story arc run into the third season. Having looked at some of the reaction on Twitter, the show’s audience is losing their patience. They want for the mystery of who Red John is to be revealed this season. To their credit, Bruno Heller and the rest of The Mentalist production crew seem to understand that they can’t keep stringing us on much longer. It’s looking like we will find out who Red John is by the end or even the middle of the season, and there are already some likely possibilities.
The question will be, once we we know who Red John is, will we still have a desire to watch The Mentalist? I sure hope so, but I’m doubtful that the show will be able to last much longer given how much of the show’s thrust is tied to that one event. In an interview during the Mentalist’s first season, Heller even said that the revelation of Red John’s identity will be the end of the show.
I’m not sure that’s true, but one thing is certain: we are going to be seeing a lot more of Simon Baker. He’s magnetism approaches Pitt-Cruise-Ford-Clooney levels and a movie career is undoubtedly in store. I only imagine it’s a matter of time before he plays a romantic lead in a Jennifer Aniston movie.
If you have never seen the show, watch the short clip below to get a pretty good sample of its flavor. It is the introduction to one episode. Due to CBS’s copyright desires, you will be prompted to (easily) click through to YouTube to watch it.