The Mentalist – TV Review and Commentary

I’ve been having a little twitter exchange with Rich Westwood – check out his Past Offences blog – concerning the end of the recent season of The Mentalist. It’s got me thinking a bit about it and some other shows and I thought I’d share my thoughts with you.

For those not in the know, The Mentalist is one of the multitude of crime shows that populate Channel 5 in the UK. It generally gets broadcast on Friday evenings at 9 pm, unless (shudder) it’s Big Brother season. It stars Simon Baker as Patrick Jane, an ex-fake-psychic turned crime fighter with the CBI – the California Bureau of Investigation. His change of career came when he mocked the serial killer Red John on national television. Red John retaliated by killing Jane’s wife and child. Nice man. So now Jane helps out the CBI – and boy, do they need his help – while hoping to track down Red John, who is more than happy to keep playing games with our hero.

So, let’s start off with the good aspects of the show before getting to the point of this post.

It’s generally got a good sense of humour. I tend to veer away from the more straight-faced crime shows. For some reason my good lady wife and I watched a whole season of Criminal Minds – how many philosophers can Mandy Patinkin’s character quote, by the way? – but it wasn’t really our thing. There are basically six US crime shows that we watch – Bones, Psych, Leverage, Castle, Burn Notice and The Mentalist – all of which have, at times and to varying degrees, their tongue stuck firmly in their cheeks. Oh, and Monk, but that’s cancelled, although there is a TV movie in the pipeline, apparently.

The humour tends to centre entirely around Jane himself. How he doesn’t get punched every week, as he irritates nearly everyone he meets, including his colleagues, I don’t know.  But he twinkles his way through the mysteries and, usually, sets an elaborate sting to incriminate the killer which we don’t see until he plays his trump card. Sometimes these are well done, but after you’ve seen a few, you can see them coming a mile off.

And then there’s the darker side with the Red John stories. There was a wonderful episode in the most recent season where Jane used Red John to eliminate a serial killer who covered his tracks too well, by making the killer repeat Jane’s own boasts on television. Wonderfully creepy.

So, what’s the problem? Well, there are a couple.

The subplots involving the CBI seem to have fizzled out. You’ll notice that I haven’t mentioned those characters by name. That’s unfortunate as the cast do their jobs very well, but the writers don’t give them anything to do apart from react to Jane. Well, we did have a variety of plots that seem to have finished with a damp squib.

Any future for the Rigsby-Van Pelt romance seems to be squashed now, and I can’t see a tasteful way of re-igniting it. The quite-frankly weird romance between Cho and his informant is over and we seem determined to ignore his apparent addiction to pain-killers. And as for Lisbon…

Theresa Lisbon is supposed to be in charge of this bureau but always is written to take a backseat to Jane. It’s a thankless role and one wonders how on earth the character could ever have risen to such a position of responsibility. I don’t think the character had any plot-lines this series – her possible romance with Jane has been all but ignored – and her nadir was in the final episode where, when Jane reveals why he’s been jerking everyone around for six months, she forgives him instantly. Here was potential for some actual tension but no.

Look at other shows with a similar theme – amateur detective helps police. In Castle, Beckett is competent at her job and Castle helps her – he doesn’t solve things on his own. Even in Psych, where Lassiter is the comedy incompetent police officer, he’s actual portrayed as a decent policeman (if not a decent human being) who’s completely out of his depth when it comes to weird cases.  Basically, all Lisbon has to do in an episode is convince her superiors that Jane should be trusted to do whatever piece of entrapment he has planned that would probably get thrown out in court… They even make a point in the final episode of season four than since Jane’s been missing, their case-closure rate is now woeful.

And Red John… is becoming a millstone around the writers’ necks. Having hit the clever idea of everyone thinking he was dead (for about half a series), there were a few new wrinkles on the idea, notably in the episode mentioned above, but it must be time to put this story to bed. But two questions remain – is the series strong enough to survive on whodunit-of-the-week episodes and how can you finish the story satisfactorily?

I’m not sure of the answers to either of these. The whodunits, while they can be fun, are mostly pick-a-villain-at-random mysteries – up to the reveal, you could make as convincing a case against more than one character until the villain gives themself away. That’s true of a lot of TV mystery shows – very few actually invite the viewer to play along properly – Death In Paradise is the only one I can think of based on original stories – but as the mysteries in The Mentalist are often quite ordinary, it’s more obvious to the viewer. It does shy away from guest-star-of-the-week murderers – christened “The Richard Briers Factor” at our house after a particularly obvious episode of Midsomer Murders – but often there is a sense of “so what?” at the end of an episode.

As for Red John – well, Mrs Puzzle Doctor is still convinced that Red John is Jane’s alter ego, but there’s far too much evidence against that theory. We seem to have knocked any hint of it being a regular character – despite Cho’s “red aura” from early in the series. That pathologist who turned up occasionally seems to have gone and any recurring character tends to end up dead after a while. The only possibility left, as far as I can see, is Malcolm McDowell’s cult leader who seems to turn up once a season, but that would be too easy and dull.

As readers of mysteries know, you need to introduce the villain in at least the first third of the book to play fair, so the Red John story will have to play as a thriller rather than as a mystery. But as it’s stopping being thrilling, it needs to move forward and the only “next act” I can see for it is the final one.

Blimey, that’s gone on a bit, hasn’t it? And writing all of that, it’s made me question why exactly I watch The Mentalist. It’s fun at times, although not as fun as Castle or Psych. Maybe after four seasons, I’m invested in the characters and am hoping against hope that the writers do something interesting with them. Maybe it’s for the occasional great piece of television – the David Paymer episode this season, for example. Or maybe it’s just a habit that I should think about breaking…

14 comments

  1. Nice blog. A while back I too ranted about the writers of The Mentalist (http://trackofthecat.blogspot.com/2011/10/medium-vs-mentalist.html) in a similar way. The Mentalist appeals to logic, but then his vendetta against Red John is illogical. We only continue to watch it because often it is lighter than whatever else is on at the time, as you say.

    I like your list of light mysteries, though I would add WHITE COLLAR which at times rivals LEVERAGE for the best written crime show of the week. Also the new series, LONGMIRE, which is based upon Craig Johnson’s mysteries and no doubt will continue to have a good sense of humor.

    The best mathematician mystery I have read this year, by the way, is Leonard Rosen’s ALL CRY CHAOS, which I’ll be reviewing next. The protagonist in the series is Henri Poincare, direct descendant of the mathematician of that name, and the plot of this thriller hinges on Chaos Theory and goes off the deep end a bit at the end. I doubt that the author is a mathematician but at least he seems to have read David Barrow’s PI IN THE SKY. A Harvard instructor who has written for NPR. Still, ALL CRY CHAOS is a first novel not to be missed.

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    • White Collar does intrigue me – Matthew Bomer was great in Chuck – but it’s very hard to get on DVD on these shores. I am keeping an eye out for a region 2 disc on eBay.

      Thanks for the recommendation – I’ll keep an eye out for All Cry Chaos. My chaos theory is pretty non-existent, so that might help.

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  2. Very fair appraisal Steve. One of the interesting things about the episode with David Paymer, which i think you are right to single out for praise, was that Baker himself directed it 9the only episode thus far I think, without having checked), which suggests that it was very much intended as one of those mid-season event episodes that are usually scheduled to get ratings up in sweeps week and also reboot the concept and remind everyone of the basic framework, or in this case the Red John subplot.

    I remember after watching the first season, which had one of the worst locked room mysteries ever (yes, its the key pulled under the door with a slip of paper), and thinking that they would never be able to sustain the Red John storyline for so long and that it would fall apart without it. I think I’ve clearly been proved wrong 3 seasons later, and the successive changes in senior management have been fun too. But this is a very mild show from a detective standard, as you say – the plots are usually very easy. It works only because Baker is very appealing and because every now and then they pull off a really good Red John episode.

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    • I think that doing something new with Red John is going to be very difficult now that they’ve established that he’s alive. The “Dark Jane” idea that seemed to be running through season four (when they remembered) had something going for it, but was too inconsistent. I suppose is potentially a return for Morena Baccarin’s character to look forward to, as well as Malcolm McDowell, but I think they need to bring things to a head and get a new focus. And forget about hooking Jane up with Lisbon.

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  3. Interesting post. We watched The Mentalist form the start and I guess we keep going out of habit, without considering how things have (or haven’t) progressed. I have to say that I’m not a fan of series that start with individual stories and then end up with a much longer story told over multi[ple episodes (X-FIles & 4400 are good examples) but in the case of Metalist you knew right upfornt that there would be a continuing thread, at least for a while. We have noticed how the episodes are now more focussed around Jane and I have to say that personally I think that some of the more recent stories have been weaker too. When they embark on a storyline like Red John you have to wonder if they know how long they can sustain it – after all a show in the US can be canned before even the first series is complete – or just keep on & on.
    Despite everyhitng I think we’ll persevere, because despite any faults, there aren’t many other shows that can match it even on a bad day.

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  4. I think the only US import that beats it for me on terrestrial TV is Castle – the uber-plot is much slighter (and more rarely visited) but the crimes are more interesting and the balance of the leads is much better done – although the two background cops don’t get enough development. But I mentioned six US shows in total. I think, at the moment, if you gave me access to a new episode of each show, then The Mentalist would be come in an easy last place. I’d still watch it, but the others would come first.

    NB The order would be Psych, Castle, Leverage, Bones, Burn Notice, Mentalist, if that matters. And Monk would trump the lot…

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    • I know from how quickly we catch up on the Sky + box where we rank The Mentalist – fourth after NCIS: LA, Hawaii Five-O and Castle. Not heard of some of the series you’ve mentioned – sounds like I should check them out.

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      • Had a stab at Hawaii Five-O on DVD from Lovefilm but it just seemed a bit noisy to me. Seemed rather lacking on charm – apart from Scott Caan. Maybe I should give NCIS a go – saw a couple of episodes of the main series a while ago and didn’t hate them. Is LA better than the main series?

        Psych is on Alibi or Universal, iirc – we just buy the boxsets, being freeview types. Bones is Sky 1. I think Leverage and Burn Notice used to be on Bravo but not sure where they are now.

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  5. I prefer series where the sub-plots and story arcs are kept in their place. X-FILES ran out of steam because the whole ‘alien/government conspiracy’ elements became more important than the individual stories. I was very pleased when on BBC’s NEW TRICKS, a long running story thread was bought to a convincing and satisfying conclusion in the middle of a season. They didn’t even bother to use it as a season climax; they decided that it had gone on long enough and finished it.

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    • The main problem wiht the X-Files is that despite having the show-runner writing most of the conspiracy episodes, they quickly started contradicting themselves and layering more mystery unto unresolved plot-points until it rapidly became nonsensical. All of the best X-Files episodes were the stand-alone ones.

      Haven’t watched New Tricks and don’t intend to – call me shallow, but after his recent comments regarding wife-beating in the press, I’ll be avoiding Dennis Waterman’s work.

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  6. As far as I remember, story arcs in genre series didn’t even exist before Buffy the Vampire Slayer and everything was episodic. Maybe some shows (or their writers) can’t carry a story arc effectively. Or possible some shows are just better suited to the less fashionable episodic format. After the last season finale of the Mentalist, which was frankly a massively damp squib, 5* showed an earlier standalone episode. Much more humour, a better story, and some sort-of-believable characters. Meanwhile the Red John episodes have got preposterous and overblown – he’s becoming more and more like a supervillain with endless resources and allies (and where is he getting his money?*)

    Still, I’m pretty sure we’ll keep watching. Mainly because we think Cho is hilarious.

    * I reckon Malcolm McDowell.

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    • X-files predates Buffy by about four years but (possibly) Buffy started the trend for season-long arcs.

      I’m fascinated by where Red John gets all his acolytes from – McDowell’s cult rejects, perhaps? But I think there’s no point applying logic to the “mystery” because I genuinely think the writers haven’t decided yet.

      They’ll probably just copy Psych (again). When they needed an identity for the very occasional arc villain Mr Yin, there clearly wasn’t a character it could be so they just cast a cool actor to play the part. Being a show where the comedy plays an important part, it worked well there. I think The Mentalist needs more substance.

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  7. I like this series a lot, prefer to Castle, though, yeah, Lisbon is pretty hopeless. I kind of get a kick out of the fact though that she’s the muscle and he’s kind of a prissy-missy, nice subversion of traditional gender norms.

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