About this time a year ago, I watched Patrick Jane, charlatan “mentalist” turned police consultant, shoot and kill a man who claimed to be his nemesis, psychopath Red John, in the middle of a shopping mall food court. Like millions of fans of CBS’s The Mentalist, I was left to wonder all last summer not just how the series could go on without its elusive, overarching villain, but also how creator Bruno Heller and his writers could keep Jane out of prison. This was before “Stand Your Ground” became national catch-phrase and excuse, but even so, Jane appeared to have committed cold-blooded murder.
The Mentalist concludes another season tonight (Thursday 10 p.m. ET), its fourth. And as regular viewers know, Heller made it work the way he usually does. He just bulldozed over the questions last year’s finale raised, letting Jane (Simon Baker) go to trial and then, in court, charm the jury into agreeing that Red John deserved to die for all the heinous things he’d done, most pertinently slaughter Jane’s wife and daughter. And even though it quickly became apparent that Jane knew he hadn’t actually killed Red John, just one of his minions (played unbilled by Bradley Whitford), Heller expected us fans to just go along with the improbability.
Which, of course, we did. Ignoring plot holes and illogic is part of the bargain we’ve accepted.
The Mentalist is my guiltiest TV-watching pleasure. I wish it were a great series. I wish it were as ingeniously plotted as Sherlock, the Conan Doyle update currently in its second cycle on PBS’s Masterpiece Mystery, and after whose super-observant sleuth Patrick Jane is loosely patterned. But it isn’t. One week it’s great fun, requiring only a modicum of disbelief suspension, the next it’s an extended cue for eye-rolling.
I watch anyway.
I watch because Baker’s Patrick Jane, last year’s gunplay notwithstanding, is the most violence-avoidant prime time hero since Jim Rockford (or Bret Maverick). Jane is chicken, far more likely to get punched in the jaw than to throw one. And Baker has the self-possession and savoir faire to make Jane’s preternatural powers of observation credible most of the time.
I watch because, for my money, Baker’s supporting cast is the best ensemble of any of the current crime procedurals. They’re all nice looking, but thanks to the way they’re dressed and groomed, they don’t look like models (I’m talking to you, NCIS!), nor are they calculatedly cute (see previous parenthetical reference).
I like the fact that Jane’s immediate superior at the California Bureau of Investigation (CBS), Agent Teresa Lisbon (Robin Tunney), though quite pretty, has chipmunk cheeks, sometimes frizzy hair, and wears outfits that don’t always flatter her figure. I like the way the on-the-job romance of agents Rigsby (Owain Yeoman) and Van Pelt (Amanda Righetti) was handled, and how its collapse hangs over the show. I like the fact that there’s a character with the same last name as Lucy and Linus. And I love Tim Kang’s deadpan Korean Joe Friday shtick as Agent Kimball Cho. He’s funnier than a lot of sitcom characters, meanwhile conveying the unmistakable notion that he could rip your arms off if you really made him mad.
I love it when Heller and company come up with a guest nemesis who’s a sharp as Jane. Malcolm McDowell’s recurring appearances as Bret Stiles — the brainy, unflappable founder of a “self-realization” center that seems part Scientology, part EST — are always a treat. So are Currie Graham’s turns as hedonistic billionaire thrill-seeker Walter Mashburn. And then there’s Pruitt Taylor Vance’s season as J.J. LaRoche, Lisbon’s creepy, inquisitive boss, a bullet-headed behemoth who looks like Uncle Fester (Addams) on growth hormone. He always seemed suspect — a Red John acolyte? the Evil One himself?— but was given a surprisingly sweet exit from the show. Have we really seen the last of him?
The major character of suspicion as season four ends is Luther Wainwright (Michael Rady), Lisbon’s current superior. He’s clean cut and boyishly handsome, a bit over-wound perhaps, but as seemingly nontoxic as LaRoche was menacing. But last week Jane, in route to getting himself fired from CBI, baited Wainwright into a violent rage, leaving viewers to go, “Hmmm.” Indeed, it’s all over the fan-ternet these days that Wainwright may be good ol’ RJ himself.
I don’t really care. I trust that the big mystery will be resolved when The Mentalist finally wraps up in, oh, two more seasons, tops.
Until then, I’ll do my best to relish the character relationships, overlook the sometimes ludicrous plots, and enjoy light mysteries in the multiple-choice whodunit mold that network TV has been doing since at least the days of Burke’s Law.