I don’t watch much TV. I’m not going to be pompous about it, I just don’t. Recently, however, I came into possession of the complete run — seven seasons, approximately 800 DVDs — of the US show The Mentalist and was intrigued enough to give it a look. If this is new territory to you, it stars Simons Baker as Patrick Jane, an ex-psychic who following a personal tragedy now helps the seemingly-autonomous California Bureau of Investigation with his keen insight into the crimes they are called to solve.
This intrigued me because there’s the potential for a strong tradition of the Genius Amateur Detective to be carried through here — “He reads between the lies” is the tag-line on the DVD case, providing great opportunities for the piecing together of disparate facts in order to form a case against a surprise suspect in the manner of Gideon Fell, Peter Wimsey, and a less-wrong Roger Sheringham. The show ran for seven seasons, don’t forget, and given the profligacy of US TV shows it’s not going to achieve that rich and full a life without being at least half decent, and this seems to be the way it would distinguish itself. And this was pre-Sherlock, don’t forget, when the demonstration of this sort of thing in the visual media was limited to my awareness (I can think of Monk and…pretty much nothing else, but then I’m not the best test case).
In case you thought they took the title from Alan Partridge…
It does not, alas, get off to a good start. In order to explore this, there will be spoilers; oh, yes, there will be spoilers…
The pilot episode begins by showing us Jane deducing the murderer of a teenage girl whose body has been found. This process is never explained beyond him seeing a photo of someone skiing and saying “You pretend to like skiing more than you do,” and similar, but that’s actually fine — if you’re able to show in the body of the episode itself how he does this on another case, it can be implied that he found something similar in that opening instance. Instead, the capture of the murderer in the main plot comes down to the fact that said killer owns books which have chapters on a serial killer of whom he claims to’ve not heard. This would work — it’s rather thin, but it could be made to work — if it had ever been established in-episode that he’d definitely read those books. Is it? No. If someone came to me and said “A killing has been committed in the style of Philip Macondald’s The Maze and you have that on your shelf so therefore you’re the killer…”, the basic premise to be established is whether or not I’m aware of the murder in that novel (I’m not, incidentally, that’s why I cite it).
And the problem is that there are so many opportunities taken to show how great Jane is at this reading of people and situations — glancing at a man’s dead body and deducing that he’s gay, correctly calling the fact of a sexual relationship between the victim and one of the suspects, or even something simple like the nascent attraction between two members of the team he works with — and the only deduction anyone ever asks him to explain is the one about the books. In a way, it’s almost like a later season of the same show, one where they’ve spent five years crafting clever explanations and now simply don’t have the energy or inventiveness and so are just throwing “Well, we’ve explained him doing this before, so now you just have to accept it” at you to cover themselves. And to me that seems sort of backwards: surely you’d write something like this because of the raft of different ideas you have to communicate these little deductions along the way. Hell, you’d explain three or four small things an episode even if you weren’t able to explain everything just to keep the audience on-side.
Obviously this doesn’t even come close to fair play, but it also doesn’t even come close to actual deductive logic, seemingly the foundation of the entire show (“He reads between the lies,” remember, not “He’s right, get over it”).
In the second episode, the sole reasoning given for establishing that a man enjoys kidnapping red-headed women, subduing them with carpet tape, and killing them is — I promise you — that he uses too much butter in his cooking and is therefore gluttonous and self-indulgent. The third episode has no ‘logical’ basis at all: Jane simply knows who did the killing and we’re told in the penultimate scene (there are even some word-association games that might be significant, I’d take that at this stage, but aren’t referred to again past a facile, sweeping reference). The fourth relies on a woman who is “glowing” at her husband’s funeral…especially illogical as his death left his widow with all manner of unanswered questions and no closer to the goal that lead to her killing him in the first place. This isn’t even subtle psychology, it’s…nothing.
I’ll take a break from my disappointment to say that the cast are clearly having a good time, Baker in particular, and it shows. Amanda Righetti is stuck in a slightly thankless role that feels very catered towards conservative Middle America — expositing a faith in the afterlife and the sanctity of marriage that belies the sort of naiveté found in someone who only had boxes to talk to for the fist 20 years of their life — but Owain Yeoman and, particularly, Tim Kang and play off each other well, and when Robin Tunney isn’t required to look long-suffering at Jane’s antics she sells another slightly underwritten “Main Law Enforcement Officer” fill-in. Also, Gregory Itzin is in this — “Hey, kids, you may remember me as the cowardly President Charles Logan from the best season of 24…!” — and he’s always excellent value. With scripts featuring all the complexity of mid-90s Lorenzo Lamas vehicle Renegade (yup, that’s how little TV I watch), it helps when they can be sold by a cast who can turn the lead they’re served into…well, not gold so much as let’s say, uh, gallium. Would that be better? I’m not a chemist, it’s difficult to know.
Anyway, back to it.
Episode 5 has the frank balls to lampshade Jane’s complete lack of explanation for his deductions, and the only bit of psychological mastery he employs falls completely flat. I’d take this as a piece of self-aware meta-criticism — you might be aware how much I love my meta — if anything looked like changing, but it doesn’t. Well, not hugely. Episode 6 actually explains some stuff — simple stuff, sure, mostly physical stuff like footprints and counting cards, but it’s sort of explained — and benefits from Gregg Henry and a nicely closed narrative, but again the logic is terrible (the “number written on the hand” in particular). Epidode 7 gives us a psychic who foretells her client’s death and is able to “channel” the location of the car used to kill her, opening up a great impossible crime situation where Jane and she go head-to-head. But, nope, she’s actually psychic. And the episode closes on the cheapest and most tacky piece of character manipulation probably ever put on screen, requiring a complete reversal of Jane’s much-vaunted insight so that we, the audience, can have a nice cry. It’s actually one of the most sickening things I’ve ever seen, and I once sat through eight minutes of Mrs Brown’s Boys.
It’s increasingly difficult not to feel the lost opportunities at this point. Jane was a professional psychic, a manipulator who exploited the grief and credulous callowness of others, and the opportunities to, say, even vaguely explain the tricks of cold reading would at least enrich things slightly, and possibly even add an element of public awareness to inform people of the tricks used so they can be wise to them. And, now I think about it, this has to be the first use of a psychic in any detective format where I’ve not seen this done. How did they sell this show? You can almost see the series creator Bruno Heller going into a TV Exec’s office:
BH: I have an idea for a show — an ex-stage psychic helps the police solve crimes.
Exec (steepling fingers): I’m listening…
BH: Well…that’s it, really. He can use the skills he learned as a fraudulent psychic.
Exec (sitting back): Will that be easy to write?
BH (starting to sweat): …sure.
Exec: Okay, give me an example.
Exec: What if we just don’t explain how he does it? No-one will notice.
BH: Won’t that…sort of destroy the entire premise?
Exec: I can give you $150 million and four series.
BH (pulling out 19 pens): WHERE DO I SIGN?!?!?!?!!!??
[A Brazilian carnival breaks out in the office, and continues until the first day of filming.]
Imagine House without any discussion about medicine — I’ve only seen about three episodes of House, but there was a lot of discussing medicine so I assume that’s typical — and you’re not far off.
Episode 8 has a baby in it. Babies are cute, right? Look at the baby and her cute faaaace. At this point I realise the show has lost me; not that I can’t bear to watch it any more, just that it’s not rewarding my time having completely scuppered the premise it established and utterly neglected the one chance it manufactured to do something interesting in episode 7 so that it could grotesquely yank on your heartstrings hard enough for you to feel it from behind the wall of selfies you use to prop up your withering self-esteem on social media. I thought I’d do the first half of the series, but there are other things I’d rather do with my time — like read, and…okay, just read — so I’ll rely on you lot to let me know which of the following two option applies:
“No, no, it definitely gets better and starts applying sense of logic and construction to the cases — keep watching, you’ll be rewarded in time”
“Man, the first season sounds a lot like every other season…wow, this show really milked this stuff, huh?”
Okay, that’ll do, I think we’ve all spent enough time on this today. Never forget that in any novel or scripted TV show, things are the way they are because someone actually decided and contrived to make them that way; a failure of this magnitude in utilising your own soi-disant creativity is a turn of events that staggers me. Coming on Thursday: How to Actually Use Your Detective Setup For, Y’know, Detective Work.
29 thoughts on “#284: Lament for a Maker – Logical Fallacies Abound in The Mentalist Season 1, Episodes 1-8 (2008)”
It doesn’t get any better. It actually gets worse at several points when the interplay between Patrick Jayne and the evil monster who killed his wife (Red John? or something like that) is played out (repeatedly, getting sillier every time)
I think I stopped sometime around mid season 5 but I would never have considered myself a fan and don’t disagree with any of your observations. I watched because my family has a very tangential connection to Simon Baker’s family and my mum used to like to watch things he was in and if I watched too it gave us something shared to chat about. I stopped watching when my mum stopped (she had dementia before her death) and I have never thought enough of the thing to go and find the end of the series (the internet tells me there are 7 seasons all together).
There are lots of things (even some other TV) you could better spend your time with
That is exactly what I wanted to know, many thanks! Gotta wonder how it ended up such a huge hit, it seems so…bland. Maybe there’s a large section of the TV audience that doesn’t want to have to pay attention — I did a moderate amount of texting and emailing during the last two episodes, so can see the appeal from a multi-tasking perspective.
It’s interesting how you attach this to your mother; I have the exact same thing with Jonathan Creek: we started watching it together and would sit down every week when it came on (I was about 15 at the time), and I’ll always watch it no matter how bad it gets — and it’s gotten pretty bad — at least in part because of the memory it carries from those years. Weird how the brain works sometimes.
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I love Streisand at least partly because I would curl up and listen to her first album with my mom.
And also because of that Kris Kristofferson moive, right? Or do I mean Nick Nolte?
It’s KK, and I never saw that movie! There’s only one A STAR IS BORN for me, and it belongs to Judy Garland. The Nick Nolte pairing is pretty good, but the book is better. Streisand padded her part completely! Can you believe the ego of that woman?!?
“…I can think of Monk and…pretty much nothing else, but then I’m not the best test case)”
I’ve not seen The Mentalist, but it seems pretty lousy from what you’re describing. (It also reminds me of the execrable Psych, which is in my “most hated” category. Ugh…)
As for great puzzle-plot television programs, besides Monk, there’s Jonathan Creek, of course, and Death in Paradise.
(By the way, I never caught the Sherlock bug. [I never caught the Doctor Who bug either, actually.] I watched the first season, liked it, watched the first two episodes of the second season, kinda-sorta liked them, and then forgot about the whole thing. I watched The Abominable Bride, strongly disliked it, and ended up being indifferent to the show.)
Others? Ellery Queen (’75-’76), Columbo, even one or two episodes of Murder, She Wrote (to which I devoted one of my first blog-posts: https://yetanothermysteryblog.wordpress.com/2016/06/14/murder-she-spelled-out-real-plain/) Perry Mason, with Raymond Burr, also has a number of good whodunits; “The Case of the Weary Watchdog” is particularly good. Oh, and Colonel March of Scotland Yard, if you can find it!
I was blown away by the first series of Sherlock, then loved bits of series 2, sort of stopped taking it too seriously by series 3, and consequently enjoyed series 4 a lot more than a lot of people — it became nonsensical, but you cold see everyone involved working as hard as they could to provide something entertaining and new.
I loved ‘The Abominable Bride’, though — thought it as genius television. I still think it’s something everyone should watch as spoiler-free as possible because it’s so goddamn clever in what it sets up and delivers.
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Well, late reply here, but perhaps you could explain to me what you found genius about The Abominable Bride? It caused me to threaten to throw my slippers at the TV!
Perhaps I missed something that gave it all a point, though I suspect it’s just a different perspective on things.
I even usually like when things get “meta”, but in this case I felt like the show had pushed things too far.
In a nutshell, I think what I especially appreciated about TAB and Sherlock in general was how much effort went in to making something entertaining and new. So much media entertainment these days seems to simply be a derivative form of something already seen and done, and while Sherlock turned into complete and utter hooey at the end it was always trying to generate new situations, surprises, approaches, and methods in its storytelling.
Consider, too, that in this Access All Areas age, where there’s genuinely very little we’re not told about in advance — witness the most recent series of Doctor Who, where they were all over themselves to tell you about the reappearance of John Simm even though it would have been much better to keep it as a surprise — being able to spring a surprise of the manitude of TAB takes a hell of a lot of doing. I suppose I’m just massively appreciative of all these different forms of effort going in with the intention of giving the audience something new and unexpected.
Sure, not everyone’s gonna love it, but I’ll take the wildly inventive approach of Sherlock over the standard plod of The Mentalist any day of the week 🙂
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The most disturbing thing about TAB for me was how much I enjoyed it after I had heard how terrible it was! To me, it meant that what I saw as clever and tricky and fun, others saw as annoying. It explains the lonely predicament I find myself in, both in finding mysteries in both TV and book form to enjoy and in finding others who enjoy them along with me.
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Thanks for explaining what you enjoyed about TAB. I see where you’re coming from. Inventiveness is definitely valuable, and found in few places! Most detectivey shows are certainly anything but surprising in their structure.
I guess for me things being hooey outweighs any surprise value – I was definitely missing that wonderful rollercoaster feeling I remember from the earlier episodes since my brain refused to care after I twigged the central twist of the episode! I probably would still have found it enjoyable nonsense if I didn’t react so badly to that particular trope…
To try and explain my position while keeping spoilers low (probably not worth avoiding, but eh):
Compare the situation at the end of the previous episode/start of this one to the situation at the end. How much has changed, and how much of that was a result of any of the events in the episode? Even including things like character development, I thought there was very little there. That’s where my main frustrations lie. And I think after a certain point in the episode I was expecting that, and waiting to be proven wrong.
Oh and since I don’t think I’ve commented here before, I’d like to mention how excellent your reviews and articles are! I’m very happy that there’s a lovely community built up around enjoying this section of literature 🙂
I suppose the essential issue was that at the start we assume M——- is alive and at the end we know M——- is dead, though preciusely how “proven” this is by what occurs within is up for debate. And the banishment is repealed, too, don’t forget. I dunno, as someone who never expects too much from a Christmas episode of anything I liked how so much was subverted here…but, yeah, if you twig to what is going on then you’re probably going to be half as entertained as you should (a flaw with most narrative suspense fiction). Still, beats EastEnders any day of the week. I imagine.
Thanks for the kind words, it’s always great to find someone new cropping up and saying they read and enjoy this stuff — the motivation to keep doing it very much comes from the great inight people have and the discussions different experiences and opinions brought to, and raised in, legitimate interested discussion. I mean, did you read the comments on that Conscious Regiment of Women post? Hot damn, people have a great perspective on this stuff. What’s not to love?!
Regarding The Mentalist, I really really really love the fifth season of 24 with Gregory Itzin. I lasted two or three seasons of The Mentalist, largely because I think Simon Baker is cute. It wasn’t enough of a reason. Listen to Bernadette! Once Jane and Red John get serious, it all seems increasingly pointless. There’s a season-long arc about who Red John is, which I believe turns out to be a cheat, and it is followed by another season-long arc about who Red John is . . . and by then you don’t care.
I watched several episodes of Death in Paradise and should return to it. It definitely had a sense of writers caring about the clues and the fairness and all that we’re looking for in a TV show, unlike most of the mystery series out there.
Oh, my! look at how I screwed up the italics! Never type before 6:30am, I guess! 🙂
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Not to self-promote too much (I say right before I self-promote far too much), but–if you’re interested–I also posted a list of my favorite Death in Paradise episodes early on…
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Excellent, Karl! Now I have a guide . . .
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I hear tell that the earlier season of Death in Paradise do the clewing aspect far more thoroughly. I picked it up somewhere around the series 2/series 3 handover, so I can’t comment, but I’d be interested to watch series 1 in light of how it is now to see how the two compare. At its best, it is a very good show indeed, and anything that takes such pains to near-permanently invest in impossibilities is always going to go over well with me (it’s a shame Thorogood’s novels haven’t yet achieve quite the same distinction..).
Simon Baker is indeed a very attractive man. I believe he’s Australian, and they got most of the good looking genes on the planet as compensation for living in an arid wasteland, so it would make sense.
By and large, I think I’d agree (re: the Death in Paradise bit, of course), as the best stories and plots come from Seasons 1 and 2. There are a couple of episodes from Season 3 that make my Top 10 list, but only one from Season 4.
I actually appreciate the fact that the show doesn’t focus only on impossibilities, as doing so seemed to exhaust David Renwick (the later JC episodes are very weak, as you note, especially as regards the impossibility part–maybe Halter should do the plotting and Renwick the dialogue? 🙂 ).
Does that mean Death in Paradise gets worse as it goes along? I got almost to the end of season 1, I think. I remember the solutions to the first couple of them, so maybe I need to backtrack a bit. Listen, I’ve been a faithful fan of Midsomer Murders, and even I know that show is total crap! I’m getting more selective in my advanced years . . .
The more reent series do get a bit more transparent as they go; four or five of them are even solvable before the opening credits role — and not because they’ve been so liberal with the clues, mainly just because the situations are creaky and easy to see through.
More and more writers have been brought in, and this makes it increasingly apparent how much better Thorogood’s plots are in comparison to the other people writing the show. If he abandoned his aspirations as a novelist I think the show would improve and the book writing community would more than cope with the loss…
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Among contemporary N. American crime dramas, the ones with the best mystery puzzle plots (aside from MONK) are the US show CASTLE (especially seasons 2, 3, 4) and the Canadian MURDOCH MYSTERIES. In the 1990’s DIAGNOSIS MURDER with Dick Van Dyke was sometimes good.
None of these shows are perfect. Good episodes alternate with awful ones. MURDOCH suffers from gruesome autopsy scenes. You can’t binge watch these shows and expect to find uniformly good viewing (to put it mildly).
I keep a record of every TV episode I’ve liked since 1971:
It’s in roughly chronological order. So current mystery shows are at the very end. Or just search a show’s title.
I agree with the negative comments on THE MENTALIST here.
Also agree that supporting actors Tim Kang and Owain Yeoman add sparkle to the show. Random viewing suggests it has a few good episodes. Especially liked:
These are all from Season 2.
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Asd ever, Mike, I appreciate the detail of your insight here. Castle is the Nathan Fillion show, right? I love Fillion, but watch so little TV — no Netflix, no Amazon watchyroo, no physical television even — that as much as something may <isound interesting, it invariably ends up passing me by.
I do, however, have every single Mentalist episode, so shall check out those season 2 picks when the desire to saddle up again rages to life within me.
If I remember correctly, the next-to-last season of THE MENTALIST seemed to end with the writers slamming into a brick wall; the next (and I believe it was the last) season seemed to be some kind of reboot in which everything that had gone before (including Jane’s transgressive revenge crime that ended the previous season) never happened. You’re right: THE MENTALIST isn’t worth your time.
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I once again appreciate this being made so clear, even if it is a shame to hear from a creativity point of view. Man, they had the setup, the cast, and the free reign to do such good things here and they screwed it up…well, actually they appear not to’ve even tried in the first place.
It’s at times like this that I find myself thinking “I’d rather do nothing than produce work of this poor a quality” — but then I suppose if someone will pay you well to just trot out the usual crud…why not? And that casino episode showed some reasl promise, was very well through through. Maybe I should see if whoever wrote that wrote any more and check those out.
Hmmm, that might be a way forward (I already have the DVDs, after all…).
This show sounds a lot like the equivalent of a whole slew of current fiction called “Paranormal Mystery”.
Murders with psychics, witches, ghosts, mediums, talking cats, etc. A killing happens, and the rest of the book is filled with romance and occult blather.
The crime is never “solved”. It happens, then Magic! : killer caught just in time for the last chapter which sets up more romance for the next book in the series.
No surprise TV would do the same. These books are popular.
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You make an excellent point; I suppose we are increasingly expected to take an interest in an ensemble cast — that’s why DVD boxes feature about seventeen people on the front, like it’s a new Expendables movie — and maybe that’s all they’re selling here: attractive people doing clever things that we, the audience, need not worry out heads about.
And the things is, I wouldn’t even mind that much iof they could be consistent about it. One of the rasons I read so much GAD and SF is because of the fun in seeing someone create a set of rules and then operate fully inside of them. Hell, even a Paranormal Romance could do that (though, sure, most of them probably don’t…).
Here, Jane’s a genius until he’s not for plot reasons: he can tell when people are lying until it’s necessary for a lie to enable another 20 minutes of show; he definitely disdains the idea of an afterlife and psychic skills until someone (whose psychic powers he does not credit) tells him they spoke with his dead wife…it’s so all over the place, it doesn’t even know what it wants to be.
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I like Simon Baker but I agree the show was thin. In fact, one episode was a partial ripoff of the very first Columbo episode “Prescription Murder”. In The Mentalist the very same “device” was used to catch the culprit. It felt cheap and unoriginal but then, it was.
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Robin Tunney, and you want more. Greedy, greedy.