Wednesday, September 24, 2008

No Medium Here

CBS has this knack. They put on these shows that are unlike series that the other networks would put on. They're shows that feature detective who have a quirky manner in solving crimes either because of who they are or how they go about solving crimes. And yet these people are not so quirky that their quirks become the story. In short they're not producing shows like Monk or Psych. But think of it; they took a show about Navy lawyers who solve crimes that was cast off after one season by NBC and made it such a success that it ran for a total of ten years. That was JAG. Then they put together a show about Navy investigators originally called Navy NCIS (which was of course redundant since the "N" in NCIS stands for "Naval"). Then there was that show about a math professor who solves crime for his FBI agent brother – Numb3rs. Arguably you can add the CSI franchise shows to this list. What do these shows have in common? Charming characters, well defined relationships, and solid but not spectacular writing. These shows are never going to win an Emmy and they're never going to get a lot of love – or indeed hate – from the critics. In fact I've seen people who do criticism online say that they don't know anyone who watches NCIS. And yet NCIS is in the top 20 in ratings, the CSI franchise are among the best rated shows on TV, and Numb3rs is absolutely solid on Friday nights. So obviously CBS is on to something. CBS's latest addition to this sort of show is The Mentalist starring Simon Baker. It's not genius, but all things considered it's pretty solid TV.

The lead character in The Mentalist is Patrick Jane. For years he pretended to be a psychic, able to use his supposed abilities to contact the dead and to work with the police. He was very successful at this, being a favourite on the TV talk show circuit. That was five years ago though, and things have changed for Patrick – a lot. What exactly that was is a major plot point that I want to reveal at the appropriate point, and indeed it might not be the full story. Jane is now working with the California Bureau of Investigations (which I was surprised to learn is a real organization). We first meet Patrick and the team that he works with as they arrive at a mansion. Posters showing a teenage girl are being pulled down and a teenage boy is being taken away in handcuffs. It's obvious that the girl was missing and her dead body has been found. The local police don't think that the CBI team needed to come out for this one. While the girl's parents – her father really – are giving a press conference thanking the police, Patrick goes into the kitchen of the house, making a sandwich for himself and making tea. The girl's mother comes in and Patrick sympathises with her, telling her that he knows what she's feeling. She says he can't possibly know but he rapidly gains her confidence by telling her things about herself that supposedly no one could possibly know. In fact it's all a matter of observing things in the kitchen. He also figures out that she has doubts about the arrest of the neighbour's kid for the murder. When the husband comes in Patrick accuses him of killing his daughter. He observed a strip of pictures in the kitchen of the father and the daughter that indicated to him that the father had been altogether too close – in a sexual way – to his daughter. The wife leaves the room and comes back with a gun and shoots her husband.

This is all in the first ten minutes or so, and I want to say something about this sequence. I found it interesting that clips from this sequence were used extensively in the advertising for the series, all of which might suggest that the story of this couple was the major storyline for the episode. This is a feeling that is intensified by the actors chosen for the roles of the husband and wife – Stephen Culp and Gail O'Grady. You wouldn't hire actors of this calibre for a brief role after all. Well remember what Hitchcock did with Janet Leigh in Psycho? Hire a big name actress and then kill her character early in the movie to set up the rest of the thing? That's exactly what the producers did with Culp and O'Grady. They set up the rest of the episode with the events that culminated with the mother killing the father. And in this case they gave us some insight about Patrick Jane including a hint about his experience that we're meant to dismiss until information about his past is revealed. It's a neat trick.

The actual case begins a few weeks later. In Palm Springs a professional golfer and his brother arrive home to find the bodies of a man, bludgeoned to death with a golf club and the golfer's wife killed in their bed. On the wall of the room is a smiley face drawn in blood. The team, minus Patrick but with a new young female member are called in. They're met at the crime scene by Patrick. He's had himself reinstated. In the house a local CBI agent explains how this killing is the work of a notorious serial killer named Red John. The young agent is positively gleeful about the prospect of seeing the work of Red John. Patrick immediately explains that this isn't the real work of Red John but of a copycat who doesn't know all the details that the police know. He's been working on the Red John case for five years, since before he revealed that he was not a psychic. The immediate thought is that the wife is having an affair with the man (a Doctor) who was killed but after a quick examination of the corpse Patrick declares that the man was Gay (the man's toe nails had been done with a clear lacquer). Sure enough the man's medical partner, Doctor Wagner, confirms that he was Gay. While the other investigators look at the golfer and his brother, Patrick and his boss visit the Wagner, who's a psychiatrist. The office is full of African art – the partners in the practice run a charity helping African kids. During this interview the Doctor reveals that his partner had given the woman a year's supply of birth control pills without prescription – her husband had a vasectomy – indicating that she was having an affair. There's some physical evidence found at the scene that points to the brother as the killer. He admits only to having an affair with his sister-in-law. The assumption is that the wife was the killer's primary target and the doctor was just at the wrong place at the wrong time.

That night, after the team has had dinner, a letter is slipped under Patrick's door. It's allegedly from Red John, but Patrick knows this is not the killer's style. Patrick arranges to meet Wagner at his office supposedly to get a supply of sleeping pills. Patrick claims he doesn't sleep well. When asked by about the roots of his insomnia, we again flashback five years to an appearance that Patrick had made on a talk show. During that show he made a comment about Red John. When he returned to his expensive, lavishly decorated home where he lives with his wife and daughter he enters his bed room and sees... a smiley face drawn in blood. Of course Patrick doesn't tell the psychiatrist the truth about his family being killed by Red John. Instead he makes up a story about a brother who was killed in an accident as a child doing Patrick's chores. During this visit, Patrick plants the seed of an idea in the psychiatrist's mind, that his partner kept a diary and that it was hidden in the office. Once Patrick has gone the psychiatrist searches the office for the diary and finds nothing. However Patrick comes back to get his cell phone – he claims the door was unlocked but in fact he picked the Doctor's pocket to get his key card – and "finds" the partner's diary. To get it the Doctor pulls a gun. He killed his partner and the golfer's wife because his partner had found out that Wagner was embezzling money from their charity. His partner was the primary target while the golfer's wife was to distract attention. After bluffing Wagner into believing that he had taken the bullets from the gun, Patrick manages to get away and runs into one of the other CBI investigators as he is arriving at the office, who arrests Wagner. At the end of the episode, after Jane and the rest of the team wrap up their activities in Palm Springs, we see Patrick returning to the same home where he lived before. The building is now empty except for a mattress lying on the floor of one bedroom...under the smiley face drawn in blood.

The writing on this show is solid if not spectacular. The preliminary story (with Culp and O'Grady) is nicely set up to tell us what we need to know about Patrick Jane – he's observant and intelligent but at the same time has a charming arrogance about him. He can be compassionate to those who are deserving of compassion but can also be brusque to those who aren't deserving of it. His scene with the wife, in which he understands what she is going through becomes even more important when we learn about the tragedy in his own life; he really does understand what she is going through. In his scene with Culp's character, who I think he initially suspected when he saw the body language of the husband and wife at the press conference and which was confirmed in his mind by the photos in the kitchen, he comes right out and asks if he killed his daughter and then badgers right back when the man gets mad that very idea that's being suggested. The main story suffers a bit from doing stuff that most of us have seen before. Anyone who has watched enough TV mysteries would have been able to tell you that when two people are murdered in a way where one looks like the main target and the other seems like someone at the wrong place at the wrong time, you should always look to the enemies of the innocent bystander. And of course when the first suspect is arrested, he's never guilty. But of course this needs to happen at least in this episode because it is far less about the actual mystery than it is about establishing the character and at least part of the story of Patrick Jane.

A bigger problem than what I suppose you'd describe as the triteness of the initial mystery is the development of the other characters in the episode. With one exception we don't even know their names – at least not unless we don't check the show's IMDB page. No, instead you've got the female boss who is tough on Patrick but knows enough to give him his head, played by Robin Tunney (character name: Teresa Lisbon), the smart but unimpressed Asian guy played by Tim Yang (character: Kimball Cho), and the big, solid though sometimes easily befuddled white guy played by Owain Yeoman (character: Wayne Grigsby). He's the one who comes to Patrick's aid at the medical office. The one supporting character who isn't a cipher is the new young agent Grace Van Pelt. That's the character's name; she's played by Amanda Righetti. Grace is a "true believer" who at one point asks Patrick what the reaction of real psychics was to him before he came out as a fraud. He tells her that there are no real psychics, there is no afterlife just the here and now. She disagrees – she firmly believes that her sister is at least a little psychic, and more importantly she is a firm believer in "the Kingdom of God." This is of course an effort to flesh out our understanding of Patrick – that he's an atheist, probably as a result of his time pretending to be a psychic – but it is useful in giving us someone who is both more of an idealist and who holds an alternate, religious view, from Patrick's. Patrick Jane is much more of a profiler, in the style of the characters on Criminal Minds than he is Allison Dubois (from Medium), but then he quite clearly not claiming any mystical powers like Dubois does; quite the opposite in fact. This is very much Simon Baker's show. The man is eminently likable – almost charismatic – and is capable of holding our attention without the histrionic sort of performances that an actor like James Woods from last season's Shark has to resort to. He's very much the focus here, although for this series to work up to its potential I am convinced that they are going to have to build up the characterization of the supporting cast. They're never going to be the focus of the show but we need a stronger sense of who they are.

When this series was initially announced my first impression – and the first impression of a lot of people – was that this some sort of serious version of the USA network show Psych. It's not of course and not just because Patrick Jane isn't using powers of observation to pretend to be a psychic. He's "out" and I wouldn't be surprised if, in his off hours, he doesn't take on the sort of role that James Randi has adopted in exposing claims of psychic powers. I tend to see this show as sort of the "anti" Medium. I find Patrick Jane far more believable than either the real or the TV version of Allison Dubois. Jane rejects the notion of psychic abilities, ascribing what others saw as his "powers" to his abilities as an observer. This far more rationalistic approach more appealing, at least it is for me. As a character, Patrick Jane has a considerable amount of charm and charisma, a quality which is common in the lead characters of shows like JAG, NCIS and Numb3rs. And of course those shows took a while for the supporting characters to come into their own. As it stands the show depends on the charm of its leading character and the actor who plays him for much of its attraction to an audience. I think they need to beef up the mysteries a bit more and (as I keep on harping about) make the supporting characters stand out as something more than just foils for Simon Baker. If they can do that, give us better than ordinary stories and develop more the team while at the same time this is a show that should go on for a long time and be a strong component in a CBS Tuesday night that is suddenly looking quite strong. A nice quiet performer with – as other critics have said – considerable charm.

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