Mental magic

At the beginning of the year, when I made my picks from 2008’s new US shows, The Mentalist barely made it on to the list. The concept wasn’t promising – after all, who needed yet another procedural drama in which a team of mavericks solve crime using only their intuition and superior morals? On paper, it was a bust, and the first five minutes of the pilot did everything to justify my fears. The acting was leaden and the script reminiscent of the worst excesses of a Without a Trace episode.

And then, just as I was about to switch off, it became obvious that this wasn’t a mistake. What had seemed like the tritest of setups was, in fact, just a smart riff on that well-known, straight-laced genre of American investigation. In the Mentalist’s surprisingly wry universe, the Horatio Caine bleeding-heart-sympathetic-glasses-removal approach would land him with a bullet in his face. Thank goodness for cynicism.

From that moment on, The Mentalist has proved itself to be one of the best new shows around. True, there’s not much competition, and true again, it’s not exactly Emmy material, but in these troubled times, in which we are free to blame the apocalyptic spiral the world economy has gone into for everything from The Hills to Vladimir Putin, who cares?

The Mentalist focuses on Patrick Jane, a ‘consultant’ for the California Bureau of Investigations, which is apparently some kind of baby-FBI elite crime fighting force. He and his pack of detective groupies travel around the slacker state in giant black SUVs, solving murders and generally having an excellent time among the redwoods and the sandy beaches. As you may have surmised, gritty and situationally realistic this is not. The thing that makes the show so delightful is its humour. There’s a laid-back, Californian attitude to it that’s in keeping with its location. Yeah, there are murders, but Jane’s there to have fun, and so are we. He messes about like a child, teasing his co-workers and keeping the atmosphere more light-hearted than some comedies.

Some really genius casting is responsible for the presence of Simon Baker as Patrick Jane (the Mentalist in question), an ex-psychic with a Derren Brown-esque take on crime-fighting. While it’s never quite clear why, as an amateur consultant with only the vaguest of affiliations to the organisation he’s working for, he is allowed such a large role in crime scenes and interrogation rooms, his outrageous charm makes these vast plot holes seem totally forgivable. When scenes would otherwise be dull and drawn-out, Jane keeps up a slick patter, showing off flashy sleights-of-hand and smooth people-manipulation techniques. As urbane, beguiling and charismatic as the best of magicians, you keep your eyes fixed on him just to know how he does the trick.

Next to Jane, the characters of the four suits who support him can seem somewhat lightly drawn. While they certainly don’t deviate much from type – the Smart Asian, the Pretty Girl, the Tough Bitch and the All-American Dude – the acting and script are respectable enough to at least make them personalities, if not quite fully thought-out people. Most notable is Robin Tunney, who finally (after a disastrous stint on Prison Break) seems to have finally found a role that works for her. As tense, adorable Agent Lisbon she’s a great foil for Jane, who is so naturally calm that he practically floats on the horizontal at all times.

Unusually for a crime procedural there’s a strong central narrative running through the episodes which manages to focus the storytelling every time it seems in danger of heading off on a tangent. Unlike the Law and Order and CSI crowds, who do what they do for Truth and Great Justice, Jane’s in the detective business for one reason only. Back in his TV-psychic days he boasted that his supernatural powers would allow him to go one better than the police and catch the notorious serial killer, Red John. Red John, understandably piqued by this suggestion, broke into Jane’s house one night while he was on air and killed his wife and daughter as a punishment. In the months following the murders, Jane gave up his psychic job and went into the killer-catching business for real.

Without this motivator, it’s obvious that Jane would be quite cheerfully amoral and utterly uninterested in justice for its own sake. He’s part of Lisbon’s team purely to find Red John and get his revenge. As origin stories go, it’s almost as strong and involving as Veronica Mars’s. Although in the long term The Mentalist could suffer from the kind of post-mystery slump that affected Desperate Housewives after the Mary Alice riddle had been cleared up, it makes fascinating first-season viewing.

2008 was a weak year for TV, and murder not exactly an innovative subject for a drama, but The Mentalist has managed to overcome all the things it’s got going against it. Word is that Channel 5 has (unsurprisingly, considering the content) bought the rights to air the series, which will be appearing on our screens in the spring. Watch out.

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