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…