It shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that one of our favorite pastimes at PDP is trading favorite TV shows. In the last year, Nikki has gotten me hooked on Breaking Bad and Lie to Me (go out and rent those shows now), and I’m working on returning the favor by introducing her to The Mentalist.
Now, The Mentalist is one of my favorite shows; anyone who knows me will likely be shocked to read that it’s actually surpassed House on my must-watch list. It’s a lot of fun, and it almost goes without saying that Simon Baker is terrific in it. It’s the kind of performance you don’t usually see on network television, not on this kind of show.
In any show built around a dominant central character (as many procedurals – cop, doctor, lawyer shows – are), there’s an unspoken contract that exists between the lead actor and the audience. Simply put, the actor agrees to let the viewer in on what’s going on in the character’s head. A Columbo, a Monk, a Cal Lightman or Robert McCall may hide what he’s thinking from the other characters, but Peter Falk and Tony Shalhoub and Tim Roth and Edward Woodward (in pace requiescat) don’t hide it from us. That’s part of allowing audiences to relate to (if not flat-out root for) the hero. It’s part of what you have to do to make the show work.
But Simon Baker and Patrick Jane are different. Granted, you’d expect Jane (a reformed phony psychic who still revels in playing mind games with his enemies, and even his friends) to hide as much as he can from the people around him. But we’re the Audience. We’re Jane’s closest allies, and so we’re Simon Baker’s as well. And just as Jane often keeps his thoughts closed off from his colleagues, Baker keeps those same thoughts closed off from us. He breaks the contract.
And more than that, he gets away with it.
That’s something I don’t normally expect on television. I have seen it before, on Lost, with the character of Benjamin Linus; Michael Emerson is absolutely brilliant at hiding Ben’s true intentions from us, even lying to us about them. But Lost is not a procedural, it’s not a leading-man show, and though he’s the most intriguing and dominant character on it, Ben Linus is not the central character. We don’t need to rely upon him as we do on Patrick Jane. That’s the difference.
Really, for a show built around a tried-and-true formula, as The Mentalist is, it’s rather daring to have a performance that breaks a cardinal rule of being The Hero. And that one choice comes to inform everything about the series. Low-key and restrained as Baker’s performance is (only once, since I’ve started watching, have I heard Jane raise his voice), it sets the series’ tone, shapes its character relationships, and dominates every scene he’s in. It’s something to behold.
In other words, I kinda like this show.
And so, the long-expected plug: The first season of The Mentalist is available on DVD, and I strongly encourage you to queue it. Or you can start in medias res and watch the current episodes (there is an ongoing storyline, but don’t worry, you’ll catch on pretty quickly). I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.
Thanks as always for reading, and “be seeing you…”