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‘Mentalist’ follows CBS formula, with a twist

"The Mentalist" looks an awful lot like so many other CBS police procedurals, but a smart twist has made it one of the season's most popular new shows. By Andy Dehnart
/ Source: contributor

Playing the main character on CBS' "The Mentalist," Simon Baker smiles. A lot. He grins and smirks and looks as charming as possible, frequently while he's delivering lines that demonstrate his character's acute and surprisingly prophetic powers of observation, which help a team of law enforcement agents solve crimes.

But really, 90 percent of his time on the CBS show, he's smiling, grinning wryly whether he is confronting someone or is completely alone.

Why he's smiling so much isn't clear, especially since his character is supposed to have experienced significant tragedy. Perhaps he's just smiling because he's on fall's most popular new show.

The success of "The Mentalist" may say something about the lack of strong programming networks offered this autumn, but the show's popularity is ultimately not a mystery that needs a mentalist, a genius mathematician, a team of Navy investigators, or even the all-powerful Horatio Caine to solve.

Television viewers love criminal mysteries that get wrapped up in an hour thanks to the hard work and efforts of a team of likable, well-qualified characters. Those types of shows are easily digestible and while they are moderately mentally stimulating ’ everyone loves a good whodunit — they don't require sustained engagement week after week; viewers can dip in and dip out.

The appetite for such shows is so strong that CBS increasingly does little more than deliver those types of series; it currently offers 12 of them.

In fact, over Thanksgiving week, 14 of CBS' 21 prime-time hours will be filled with procedural dramas (some of which are repeat episodes). And if there's any doubt as to why CBS keeps creating more of them, eight of the top 20 shows on broadcast television during the second week in November were CBS procedurals, shows such as "CSI," "CSI: Miami," "NCIS," and "Criminal Minds."

"The Mentalist" stands out because it is the only new show in the top 10, and it's now the third most-popular procedural, behind only CBS' original "CSI" and "NCIS." In addition, it is in the top 10 where CBS' other new procedural, "Eleventh Hour," barely makes the top 20, if that.

Why, of all of them, is "The Mentalist" so popular? After all, it looks just like the CBS procedural formula copied and pasted, and switched to a different font.

While they have different approaches and angles, all of CBS' procedurals involve some law enforcement agency working to solve some kind of case using some kind of tool. That tool can be anything from math ("Numb3rs") to forensic science ("CSI"), and in its best form, is packaged as a methodology that's often personified in a quirky but likable character who has their own demons to sort out.

And that's exactly what "The Mentalist" offers.

Like televised version of 'Clue'
Baker is California Bureau of Investigation consultant Patrick Jane, who used to be a fraudulent psychic medium. After a tragic event that still haunts him — his wife and child were murdered by a serial killer — he now solves crimes by noticing details no one else notices, and by making connections between those details and the case.

He's intelligent and often socially awkward, which is supposed to come across as being rogue and indifferent to rules and procedures, but really just makes him seem childlike. Jane disturbs his colleagues with his observations about them, although they all clearly like him, and not just because he basically does a large part of their jobs for them.

While he may not be psychic and dismisses psychics, he often comes across as vaguely clairvoyant, especially when the writers don't bother to offer rational for his observations. He occasionally crosses over into TV magician territory when he uses the power of suggestion to get his way, or otherwise work what could seem like magic if it wasn't explained (like his card-counting in a casino).

Ultimately, everything he does is grounded in reality, and thus watching him use his mental abilities to solve crimes is roughly equivalent to watching CSIs solve crimes with fiber analysis or DNA tests.

Following the CBS formula, the guilty person is introduced early on as someone who couldn't possibly be a suspect, but since they often behave suspiciously, viewers often figure it out before the characters on the show, a bit of irony that seems to be lost in the pleasure of consuming a new mystery almost every hour, most nights of the week.

In other words, any flaws like that don't really matter because it's so satisfying to watch a televised version of "Clue" play out, however ridiculous the outcome or explanation ultimately is.

"The Mentalist" works because there isn't really anything overly special about it -- except that it gets every element of the formula just right.

Specifically, Baker's Patrick Jane is just quirky enough to be different, but not off-kilter enough to be a nutjob. His boss, agent Teresa Lisbon (although it's a safe bet that many viewers refer to her as "the lawyer girlfriend who got shot in 'Prison Break,'" since Robin Tunney appears to be playing the same character) and her colleagues are just beleaguered enough to seem challenged by his presence, but are more enamored than annoyed.

Although his abruptness disturbs some characters, he's mostly charismatic and interesting. That's probably because Simon Baker not as scenery-chewing awful as "CSI: Miami" lead David Caruso, or as flatly unremarkable as "Eleventh Hour" lead Rufus Sewell.

And Jane's talent as a mentalist is different and new, something that prime-time television hasn't really seen before — which is more than anyone can say for the rest of the show.