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.