Imagine Derrin Brown as a detective.
If, like me, you’re enough of a pedant to sigh whenever someone uses “beg the question” when they really mean “prompt the question”, then you may get a slight measure of satisfaction when a word is used properly. So the first thing I noticed about The Mentalist that it’s not about someone with a learning disability. OK, of course if that were really the subject of this show they’d never call it that, but they could have called it “Cop-Psychic” or simply “Jane”, so I take it as a small indication of the producers sensibility that they got this part right.
The Mentalist is about a John Edward style TV psychic who after a personal tragedy gives it up to become a police officer. As a medium he was a fake, using cold reading techniques to gather enough information to give a convincing performance. He now uses the same techniques to solve crimes. A simple and yet interesting concept.
Being the Smartest Guy in the House
The show reminded me a lot of House, and let’s face it medical shows are just cop shows where the criminal is a disease, the cop is the doctor and the symptoms are the evidence. (In fact I’m pretty sure House used that metaphor explicitly in dialogue early on.) They both feature arrogant central figures who are impossibly brilliant at what they do and know it. At one point Patrick Jane, our psychic-turned-cop, says that he doesn’t like seeing doctors because “they always want to feel like they’re the smartest guy in the room, when obviously that’s me.” They even both share a disdain for belief. When one of his colleagues states she has a cousin who is a real psychic, Jane says “he’s either deluded or dishonest or both.”
I think that where they differ is that Gregory House is a startlingly misanthropic figure where Patrick Jane is merely annoying. Also, it’s really unfair on the evidence of one show but I think Hugh Laurie beats Simon Baker in both acting ability and screen presence generally.
Anyway, what separates this show from a thousand other cop/medic/lawyer shows is its gimmick, its device, so how well does it use it? Quite well I think. One potential problem is that whilst it’s enough for a TV psychic to get a few details in the right ballpark to let the person feel like they’re having a real contact with the “other side”, the police ultimately have to prove what they think they know. However they tackle this head-on and within the first five minutes one character has shot another on the basis of Jane’s, let’s face it, educated guesses. Later in the episode he uses his techniques to get the murderer to incriminate himself, a pattern I suspect we’ll see again.
It’s also interesting that after the initial scene where we’re shown what little pieces of information he uses to construct his guesses, that after that we only hear his (always correct) insights. And of course they use his talents for comic relief, allowing him to embarrass his colleagues.
I do foresee a trap here, that the writers might just get lazy and have him know things he couldn’t possibly know, simply by establishing a pattern of credibility with the audience. However I hope they don’t do that, or not straight away. The fresh thing this show has to offer is its device and so they should keep it to the fore. Like Derrin Brown, show us the trick and then, at least some of the time, show us how it’s done. The formula works because it includes us the audience in on the “clever” side of the transaction, and so we’re flattered and will love you for it.
A good example is near the end when the criminal says,
“I knew it might be a trick but I had to be sure.”
“Yes. That’s how the trick works.”
And The Trick Worked
I definitely enjoyed The Mentalist and if you enjoy police procedurals then this looks like it will be a good one. I haven’t spoken much about the fact that this is a pilot and therefore needs to set up the concept, establish the characters and introduce an on-going story element. I haven’t done that because it does all that well enough for it not to be distracting.
I have too much TV where I need to keep up week to week so that I’m not sure if I’ll become a regular Mentalist viewer, but it’s enough of a new twist on the genre, with enough intelligence in the writing to be highly enjoyable when I do catch the odd episode. 8/10
Yeah ok, that’s a terrible title but you get my point.