Recently I told CFR that, between the USPS slowing down getting dvds, when I can find something Netflix actually has instead of sending it straight to the Saved queue, and of course not being able to go to the theater, I’m having trouble finding things I want to review. The answer was, “Go back to something you really love.” Well, that was a great answer, so I pulled out season one of The Mentalist. When this came out on dvd I would have marathon weekends of the show because I loved its quirkiness and intelligence.
The titular mentalist is Patrick Jane, who had been a rich and successful psychic until he breezily challenges the pride of a terrible serial killer called Red John. When he gets home that night he finds a quiet house with his beloved wife and child sliced to bits in their beds and her blood smeared on the wall in his signature happy face. There are no spoilers here, it’s the conceit of the show. He comes to a California Bureau of Investigation unit to be a consultant to a group that works heinous crimes and looks for Red John about every third episode. Jane is completely upfront about his desire to use the CBI unit as much as they use him so he can find Red John and exact revenge.
Jane is a mentalist, someone who has extraordinary powers of observation and an ability to use that to sway people to think or do things. Unless you’re working for the cops, and then you get to make them look kinda dense every week with your quirky, wandering brilliance. A normal show would have continued to go that way, but one of the things I loved is how the supporting characters are all major players in their way, and over time begin to take in the lessons Jane gives them about detecting beyond typical cop ways. Jane (Simon Baker) begins with his sort of boss, the woman wrangling the somewhat eclectic group. Lisbon (Robin Tunney) works furiously to try and reign in Jane and often falls short. Beginning in the first season, his lessons begin to change her and she finds herself more and more often able to participate in the little cons he uses in investigations. After Jane, my favorite character is Kimball Cho (Tim Kang), who has a massively effective poker face that he uses to great advantage and is one of the few truly calming elements in Jane’s life. The other two agents are Wayne Rigsby (Owain Yeoman) and Grace Van Pelt (Amanda Righetti), the young eager beavers of the team.
There is a huge number of other actors, this being possibly the biggest employer of Hollywood talent of all time. Every week there is a heinous crime, which oddly is almost always the murder of a rich, white person. I caught onto this pretty quickly in my viewing back then, and it was even more grating this time around. We’re taken on a tour of every mansion and business tower in California, with a very occasional foray into middle class white America. As irritating as this is, at least we can say the bad guys were almost always white as well. A small thing, I know, but there it is. There is also an embarrassingly low number of LGBTQ people for a show set in California.
The Mentalist is not like other cop shows in other ways beyond celebrating intelligence. There isn’t an obligatory car chase or shootout every episode. Everyone gets to show their macho chops, including the diminutive Lisbon, but the show is all about the mental aspect, investigation, deduction, inspired sleuthing. Jane is something unique in Hollywood cop shows. He’s completely unheroic, physically, and leaves all the heavy lifting to the rest of the team, even computer Brainiac Grace.
As with all things Hollywood, the show eventually falls off the rails before completely jumping the shark. Oddly, the first season isn’t the best one, though it’s very good. The middle years are the best, when they solve one mystery after another and slowly work their way toward one of the baddest bad guys on television, Red John. Every red episode – all of them has a title with the word red, or crimson, or scarlet in it – is fascinating in some way, even after it goes downhill. There are a couple of story arcs that go for years, nestled among a slew of shorter arcs. It’s rare for Hollywood to stay focused for so long and I applaud it. As an example I absolutely loved the reveal when it finally came, because we find out that we had met Red John very early in the game. There’s a boatload of red herrings along the way, and the CBI team becomes a great example of found family.
Coming back to if after a few years I was happy to discover that I still like it a lot for all the same reasons, and still agree with the negatives I saw back then. Now, as then, I can live with the problems because the rest of it is so good. If you’re interested in a cop show that is smart and creative without the toxic masculinity that tends to dominate the genre, try this out. You’ll have to overlook some really irritating drawbacks, but I feel like the pros outweigh the cons by quite a bit.
The Mentalist (2008) – Official Trailer
CFR: In Addition: I never wanted to watch this show as it seemed mean spirited and “I’m smart so I can be rude/nasty” when I watched the promos. I might give it a try. However, it would be nice if the psychics and the cops could work together and balance each other out kindly.