Almost in spite of myself, I kinda like The Mentalist. It’s sunnier and more predisposed toward jollity than your usual CBS crime procedural (which can often feel as though someone took a standard episode of CSI and put it in a blender set to puree). It’s got a fun play along at home aesthetic to it that lets you see what Patrick Jane is doing without ever really telegraphing why, exactly, he’s doing it, so you can try to jump ahead of his unorthodox crime-solving methods. It’s got a surprisingly winning central performance from Simon Baker, whom I previously found pretty lifeless in other shows he was in. And it’s all tied together by a writing staff led by Rome creator Bruno Heller, which manages to keep things humming along nicely. I don’t get super excited to watch The Mentalist from week to week, and I don’t think I saw every episode in season one, but it was always a nice little bit of goofy charm on Tuesdays. So, of course, CBS has moved it to the most crowded night on television, where it has become the exhaustion causing cherry atop a grueling sundae of network television.

In its first season, The Mentalist, which debuted amid catcalls from critics and fans alike that it was pretty much just Psych played straight, spent a little too much time trying to figure out what it was. It tried on a variety of guises, from glum and glowering CBS procedural to NCIS-esque comic ballet of death to slightly serialized parlor mystery. Finally, it just settled on a tone that mixed elements of all of those things and trusted Baker to put them all across. In many ways, The Mentalist is the CBS version of House, a somewhat compelling show anchored by a performance that’s better than most of the elements around it. Now, Simon Baker is no Hugh Laurie, and Patrick Jane is no Gregory House, but this show is far more dependent on its central performance than just about any CBS show on the dial. In that regard, it’s more similar to a classic ‘70s detective show than most of the other CBS procedurals, which seem to mostly have The X-Files as their ancestor.

The Mentalist isn’t afraid to be a little whimsical and goofy when the show calls for it. Unlike the other CBS crime dramas, which are all often overbearingly dark, the series takes place in a sunny, warm Northern California, where death and deception wait around every corner, yes, but the people who are going to fight back the wave of chaos all have a good-natured time bending the rules of law enforcement. Tonight, Patrick and his pals just break into a house to set a probably unnecessary trap (that ends up catching the murderer), and it’s hard not to think of some of the better examples of the ‘70s detective genre, like Columbo. The joke about The Mentalist is that Patrick catches killers by just noticing things really intensely (or looking at them really hard), but that’s also part of its appeal. Why is Patrick looking at this particular piece of evidence or this person’s tic? What could it possibly lead to? Half the fun is trying to get there before everyone else can.

Sadly, “Redemption” worked a little too hard to show everyone just how much fun this whole house of cards can be, since this was the show’s big coming out party in the post-CSI slot. The opening scene, where Patrick caught a murderer in a department store through a series of fun parlor tricks, was about as good a summation of the show’s central appeals as anything I can think of, but from there, the episode ended up with a going-through-the-motions case that didn’t quite show Patrick’s full abilities and sense of wacky fun (though I’ll admit his thought to set a trap for the killer by asking everyone he met about a man who had nothing to do with the case, then staking out that man’s house was a mystery-solving twist I didn’t see coming).  Though I must admit that I can usually predict who the killers are on these sorts of shows, and on this one, I had the son pegged from the moment he appeared on screen, only to find out that the murderer was actually Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius.

“Redemption” also dug out the favorite old chestnut in the CBS crime drama toy box by centering the episode on the murder of a free-spirited woman who lived a non-conventional lifestyle by leaving her family and pursuing her heart’s desires and etc., etc., etc. I realize that CBS has gotten where it is by allowing virtually no shades of grey into its shows’ worldviews (even if Patrick sometimes breaks the law to protect the law, he’s always charming while doing so), but at times, the fact that the bad guys are always bad, the good guys are always good and the victims always deserved some sort of punishment (if not this ultimate punishment) can leave these shows feeling a little airless. At its best, The Mentalist can twist these old tropes around until we have something vaguely new. There wasn’t that sense in tonight’s episode.

The other big development here was that Patrick’s been removed from the Red John case, the show’s most prominent serialized element (along with the flirtation between him and Robin Tunney’s Teresa Lisbon – easily the cast’s weakest link). While I am sure that eventually Terry Kinney will step down and Patrick will get to pursue this case again, I’m not so upset that it’s going to retreat to the back burner for a while. I just don’t find the whole Red John thing very interesting, particularly since the show’s heart only seems to be halfway in tossing a serialized element on top of the pile of plot points every week. Its true strength always lies in its main cases and the unorthodox methods its hero uses to solve them.

If there were a single word that would best describe The Mentalist, it would probably be “charming.” The show is doing virtually nothing new with the televisual medium, and, indeed, mostly seems to exist because CBS wanted a Simon Baker star vehicle and Bruno Heller likes ‘70s detective shows. But it’s fun to play along with at home, and it doesn’t once feel like it’s leading you into an alleyway of gloom and despair simply because that’s the worldview of the network it’s on. CBS’ premiere week has been wildly successful and surprisingly successful with the sorts of young viewers the network has had trouble attracting in the past. While that may be just because it’s the biggest network and these sorts of things have an inertia to them, it also may be because the network is increasingly leaving its dark sensibilities behind it and following NCIS (a show I'm not terribly fond of but one clearly different from most CBS shows) and The Mentalist into brighter climes by embracing the fun of good, old-fashioned policework.

Grade: B

Stray observations:

  • If anyone actually likes this show here, go ahead and yell about it in comments, please. If there’s sufficient demand, we might add it as a recurring feature, even if there’s really no room in my Thursday nights already.
  • Anybody out there a huge Robin Tunney fan? I like her better here than I did on Prison Break, but I think the show often tries too hard to force chemistry between her and Baker.

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