The Mentalist is a rare beast. Not in terms of its concept: a super-observant chap, pretending to be psychic, who helps the police solve crimes is an idea that had formed the backbone of the successfully silly Psych a couple of years earlier. But in terms of its delivery, it is a show which consistently, and unusually, gets better with time.
This is because the pitch a writer needs to sell a show, and the hook which makes the show watchable week after week are not always the same thing. Tell us what makes this show different, the TV execs will demand, and we end up with an angelically handsome man, finely skilled in the arts of illusion, hypnosis, psychology and tea-drinking from a cup and saucer, while wearing a waistcoat.
But that isn’t enough, so he also has to have a personal tragedy which motivates him (in this case, Patrick Jane is hoping to capture and murder the serial killer Red John, who killed Jane’s wife and child after Jane insulted him on a TV show. Serial killers can be petty that way).
Cleverly, The Mentalist writers have realised that their audience isn’t watching for the eventual showdown between Jane and Red John, we’re watching for the weekly murder mystery. And we’re especially watching to see Jane work with the rest of the CBI Unit – the almost perpetually down-in-the-mouth Lisbon, the uber-deadpan Cho, the steely yet emotional Van Pelt, and the other one, Rigsby.
Common to the team is a sense of sacrifice: Cho is brusque with Summer, the prostitute-turned-informant for whom he clearly has the hots, because he’s afraid to risk her safety (S4, ep14). Lisbon was prepared to fake a mental breakdown to catch a killer (S2, ep 3). Grace gunned down her own fiancée when he turned out to be evil (S3, ep 23), and Rigsby was taller than the others, and maybe once worked in arson (S1, ep 9).
The focus on our gang’s shifting dynamic doesn’t mean the writers aren’t having fun with the Red John storyline too – the finale of Season 3, where Jane meets and kills a man he believes to be his nemesis is genuinely brilliant. As Lisbon hits redial on the phone belonging to Red John’s lackey, a ringing sound peals out behind Jane. It is, of course, picked up by Bradley Whitford, and any happy residual memory of The West Wing disintegrates as he tells Jane that his murdered daughter smelled of sweat, and strawberries and cream.
Simon Baker is terrific as Jane, the urbane, charming, yet ultimately tragic hero. And his paycheque proves it: he’s the highest paid actor in a drama series in the world, earning roughly $280,000 per episode. Sitcom actors may earn more, but since Baker also has the almost unique pleasure of wearing a waistcoat and not looking like a massive tit, he wins.
Iconic: Sure. The tea-drinking, the curly hair. He even drives an old Citroen, giving the nod to Columbo, who also drove an ancient French car (in his case, a Peugeot).
Duffers: Rigsby as a dad? Let it be not so.