27.4.13

On the Subject of The Mentalist


It occurs to me that, despite it being one of my favorite shows, I've neglected to discuss The Mentalist here on the blog. For anyone not aware, The Mentalist is a CBS drama which - while it fits broadly into the network's tradition of police procedurals - is my nominee for the best-produced thing on network television.

I specify 'network' for what I think are fairly obvious reasons. The dictates of mainstream commercial-supported broadcast television put restrictions on shows that pretty much ensure that they can't ever rise to the level of your Breakings Bad or Games of Thrones. Networks prefer the episodic structure so it's easy for viewers to check in at any time - it doesn't really matter when you start watching Cheers, within a few minutes you'll get the point. Something like Wiseguy - one of the greatest things to ever come out of a network - was doomed to failure largely because it isn't the kind of thing that can simply be picked up and watched at someone's leisure. Add to that fact, from a financial standpoint, episodic shows are easier to sell into syndication, and it's easy to understand why shows about cops and lawyers and doctors solving a new crime/curing a new patient every week have dominated the airwaves since televisions inception. Also, for a little while there, every week a heroic cowboy would shoot some no-good varmint, but that trend seems to have largely passed.


Within that framework, however, exceptional shows are created from time to time, shows that manage to be formulaic enough to attract a large audience, while still crafting a truly captivating long-form narrative. It's exceedingly rare, but I'm comfortable in saying that The Mentalist is a show well-written enough that it manages to perfectly bridge the gulf between episodic and long-form storytelling. Each week it presents a mystery that ranges anywhere from serviceable to downright clever - no absolutely awful Castle or CSI-style writing to be found here. At the same time the show has always done a great job of layering in elements of its overplot - the hunt for serial killer 'Red John' - without ever either making the show inaccessible to casual viewers or giving longtime fans the impression that the creators are just spinning their wheels, Lost-style to get as much play out of the show as possible before it goes away.

The cast is also a standout ensemble for network television, with the main cast all acquitting themselves well. The scripts rarely call for the actors to do more than listen to and deliver exposition, but all are talented enough that whenever more is required from them - be it comedic or dramatic - they're more than capable of delivering. Then there's star Simon Baker, who demonstrates at least a couple of times a year that it's a tragedy that people working in procedurals are never under serious award consideration. He had a scene in Season 3 that was not only one of the great television performances, but hands-down the best ten minutes of television that aired that year, cable included.

Oh, and Robin Tunney doesn't wear heels to crime scenes, which alone makes her the most believable female cop on television.

I could go on for pages about the show's excellent balancing of tone, and how it manages to slip from relatively light mysteries to absolutely bleak thriller stories without the shifts ever feeling abrupt or unearned, or the unique moral complexity of Patrick Jane (a network main character who's apologetically pro-revenge, assisted in a suicide, and has flat-out murdered more than one person), but the show is so good that its deserves to be discovered and experienced on its own merits.

If you believe the marketing or its reputation, The Mentalist is another one of those shows about a smiling detective who uses his quirks to challenge the stogy old law enforcement establishment. While a one-sentence review of the show would certainly tend to suggest it was one of those, the reality is so much richer, and I encourage everyone to give it a chance.

Full disclosure - part of my feelings towards the show stem from the fact that I'm completely wrapped up in the central mystery storyline, which I'll be discussing further in my next, extremely spoiler-y post. That being said, I defy any fair-minded person to watch the show and not get caught up in the master plot. Seriously, though, if you're even considering watching the show, don't read the next post. It might well ruin your chances of enjoying The Mentalist as much as I have.

2 comments:

MoreThanHorror said...

Found your blog via Bloody Disgusting’s Horror Blog Awards. – Congrats! So far they have been right on the money. I’m really enjoying your blog so far and will definitely be visiting more. –good work and thanks for sharing your horror love!

Sarah Dumphy said...

One of the recent interviews has Heller talking about how Patrick will have to deal with life after Red John and that makes me very happy, that the creator has even thought of that.