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TV Tonight: Mentalist Anything

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Lance Staedler/CBS

To understand why The Mentalist is on CBS’ fall schedule, you need to understand three basic things:

1. CBS got burned with shows like Viva Laughlin and Swingtown last year

2. A lot of people apparently like Psych

3. CBS is singlemindedly convinced that Simon Baker is destined to be a big TV star

Following the occurrence of (1), CBS decided to return to its comfort zone of crime-oriented procedurals. In service of which they picked up this drama, which essentially borrows the premise of (2), in that Baker plays a former fraudulent celebrity mind reader who solves crimes, using the same tricks of observation that he used to flim-flam people wanting to talk to their dead loved ones on TV.

And damned if CBS may not be right about (3), because while The Mentalist is not in any way, shape or form a show that I will watch on a regular, or possibly even occasional, basis, I was far more entertained and charmed by it than I expected to be.

A fair amount of credit goes to above-par writing courtesy of Rome’s Bruno Heller. (Like putting Gary Sinise or Laurence Fishburne in a CSI, it’s a case of throwing more talent at the situation than the show probably commercially needs, and yet I can’t begrudge a talented guy getting paid.)

But the major reason is Baker, whose appeal I could never quite fathom in The Guardian or Smith, even though Les Moonves and company would regularly swoon over him at CBS’s upfronts. As former huckster huckster Patrick Jane, he brings a cool, slightly twisted sense of pleasure to his work. He’s a bit of a piece of work—in that now-standard, post-House, eccentric/jerk protagonist way—but he also has an infectious joy in applying his knowledge of the sheer predictability of people, whether he’s catching a killer or predicting when and how a colleague will try to sleep with someone. CBS has been selling the handsome Baker as a kind of female viewer’s fantasy (“Finally, a man who listens”) but there’s something creepy—delightfully, entertainingly creepy—about how he seems to view the rest of humanity as amusing chess pieces. He’s not so much a man who listens as a superman who listens in.

(Bonus advantage to the fake-psychic conceit: it allows the show to package as a clever twist what is actually the oldest premise on TV—a really observant guy who is a really good detective.)

The Mentalist is, in the end, a crime procedural, and thus will probably join my list of the myriad perfectly good crime procedurals I won’t make time for. But I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of other people do. CBS may not be trying to do anything exciting this season, but in returning to its meat and potatoes, it may prove that—like Patrick Jane—it knows its audience better than they know themselves.