CBS is bound and determined to make a breakout TV star out of Simon Baker. He was the Guardian a few years ago, in a show that hovered in the middle of the Nielsen ratings for three seasons. Then he was Smith last year for a brief seven episodes. Now Baker and his low-rent Heath Ledger good looks are cast as The Mentalist, a modern-day Sherlock Holmes and erstwhile John Edwards-style speaker to the dead who consults for the California Bureau of Investigation. His schtick is that his keen powers of observation allow him to notice details others miss. And thanks to the magic of editing, we get to notice them too: the father of the murdered child who reveals through unconscious body language that he actually did it, the pantry contents that reveal the personality of the wife, and the gun that the wife uses to shoot her murderer husband. Oh wait — that wasn't really hard to notice at all. In fact, it appears The Mentalist drove her to it. Another case solved before the opening credits!

Time for the real crime: gay psychiatrist and women friend appear to be victims of a serial killer known as Red John, who's partial to stun guns and drawing bloody smiley faces on the wall. Baker's Patrick Jane is convinced that the killer is a copycat. And he would know, because as he we see in a flashback, his wife and daughter were killed by Red John five years ago. (Duh-duh-duhhhhh!) Although he borrows the story of Johnny Cash's childhood tragedy to get sleeping pills out of the psychiatrist's partner. Sure, if Jane's going to be our hero, he has to have a backstory of vulnerability underneath that superhero cool. But Baker is very close to finding the key that will unlock that particular convention and make it vibrant again.

I'm always up for a good debunking, and The Mentalist has some fun with his whole plain-spoken shatter-the-illusions routine. It's a nice break from mediums and profilers and all that mystical-connection-between-cop-and-killer routine. Patrick Jane is the House of law enforcement, or he's meant to be. He's got the oddball team and the genius-screwup reputation. He can deliver the slightly off-kilter dialogue ("I'll just take a gander!") with appropriate panache. And if Baker can play him with inreasing confidence and charisma, the trick just might work.

The question is whether CBS has the wherewithal to promote a show like this without making it appear to be yet another installment of its many procedural franchises. I'll be back next week; we'll see if enough of America is with me.

Grade: B

Stray observations:


- The cast prompts an orgy of "where do I know that guy from?" Googling — Robin Tunney from Prison Break, Harold from Harold and Kumar, Zeljko Ivanek from Damages and Law & Order (actually, Zeljko requires no Googling).

- For a telling line, delivered with superb understatement, consider Jane's response to Zelkjo the psychiatrist: "I thought it might be a trick, but I had to know for sure." "Yes, that's how the trick works."

- I wish I got post-case donuts every time my team solved a murder.

- Why are there Christmas decorations at the CBI headquarters?