It didn’t take a psychic to predict the results from the fall TV season so far. Only two new shows are considered bona fide successes: Fringe and The Mentalist. The first, a much-hyped, supernatural-themed redo of The X-Files, was easy enough to predict, thanks to a big budget — at US$10-million, one of the most expensive pilots in TV history — a comfortable time period, a strong lead-in and the imprimatur of J. J. Abrams, one of TV’s most creative and successful producers of the hour.
The Mentalist was harder to predict, though. A lighthearted, feel-good caper thriller starring Simon Baker as a quiet-natured crime solver with a gift for reading body language, The Mentalist was not expected to cause much of a stir in TV’s space-time continuum. Instead, The Mentalist is in heady company, with an average weekly audience of 16 million U. S. viewers. It routinely places in the Top 10 in the U. S. Nielsen ratings. The Mentalist’s Oct. 21 episode topped that week’s outings of perennial ratings champions Grey’s Anatomy, House, CSI: Miami and Survivor: Gabon in the U. S. ratings charts. (The Mentalist airs on CTV-owned A channel in Canada.)
Baker is an Australian-born career actor who scored his first major U. S. film role as a would-be actor in Curtis Hanson’s 1997 film noir L. A. Confidential. He plays Patrick Jane, an independent crime consultant with the California state police. Jane has an enviable track record for solving crimes, thanks to his ability to read body signs and second-guess others’ thoughts.
The Mentalist frequently features flashbacks to Jane’s TV-psychic days, though, and it’s those scenes that feel like a breath of fresh air to Baker. They’re a lot of fun,” Baker said, “because you’re an actor playing an actor, and you actually get to comment on the shallowness of acting. You’re commenting on yourself, and that makes it self-deprecating in a sense. I love the idea that the character is a fraud and is aware he’s a fraud.”
Baker spent hours surfing You-Tube while researching the role. “There are psychics all over the place,” he said. Baker is not surprised that The Mentalist has found a wide audience. “In a lot of crime shows on television these days, the truth is found under a microscope, as some kind of scientific fact. ‘Oh, it’s in the DNA.’ On our show, the truth lies in the fabric of human nature. It’s about reading people’s behaviour. We’re kind of hitting two notes. If you already know who committed the crime, then you get to watch how the [detective] puts it together. It’s the upside-down detective genre.”
Unlike sham psychics in the real world, The Mentalist doesn’t claim to be real, according to the show’s creator. “We’re dealing with a slightly heightened reality,” series creator Heller said. “The Mentalist is set in an idealized world, this idealized place where a mentalist detective can ply his trade and the laws of physics in this world allow that to happen.”A real-life Patrick Jane who helps detectives solve crimes is unlikely, Heller adds.
“In real life,” he said, laughing, “you wouldn’t have someone like Jane on the police force any more than the police would let Batman get involved in crime fighting.” – The Mentalist airs Mondays on A at 10 p. m., and Tuesdays on CBS at 9 p. m.