What is it about The Mentalist that has captured America’s interest? The show focuses on Patrick Jane, who works as a consultant to the California Bureau of Investigation – a fictional law enforcement agency somewhat akin to the state police. The team that Jane works with is headed by Teresa Lisbon, played by Robin Tunney, and include Wayne Rigsby, Grace Van Pelt, and Kimball Cho. For some reason, all of these characters tend to refer to one another by their last names almost exclusively. The crimes that the team pursues are not always particularly vexing as mysteries or even particularly compelling. And yet the series is a top ten hit – a megasuccess, really. Why?
The focus is really on Patrick Jane as an investigator. Jane is a variation on the trend of the detective of unusual gifts that has run amok on American television in the last decade or so – Monk, Vincent Donofrio’s character on Law & Order: Criminal Intent (and now Jeff Goldblum’s character), etc. etc. etc. It’s a tradition that runs through Peter Falk’s Columbo to Nero Wolfe to Sherlock Holmes to Poe’s Daupin.
Jane is independently wealthy, having worked for many years as a psychic with a fabulously successful practice. He had rich and famous clients, and was himself a well-known celebrity who would appear on television programs and support law enforcement efforts to solve particularly cases. Why is he working for CBI? Because one day on a television program that closely resembled “Oprah,” Jane belittled a serial killer named Red John. That night, when he returned home, he found his wife and daughter brutally murdered by that same serial killer. Distraught, destroyed, he has sought vengeance ever since and openly admits that the only reason he consults with CBI is to gain access to any information he can get on Red John. The Red John storyline played out in a number of episodes during last year’s first season, but the case remains open and the identity of the killer remains unknown.
One of the ironies that makes the show interesting is that Jane has no psychic powers, as he openly admits. He claims that being a psychic is a scam and that his success was really due to his strong ability to read people, and the signals that they send, very closely. (USA’s Psych, which also has a purported psychic as its lead character, also challenges the existence of psychic powers.) As a result of his success at reading people, Jane has something over an oversized ego and he can charitably be called cocky (and less charitably deemed arrogant). However, he’s an astute observer of people and scenes and his means of detection leads to the solution of the crime as often as, if not more than, “traditional” means do, as represented in the work of the team leader, Lisbon.
As played by Simon Baker, Jane is handsome, confident, and even charismatic, with an easy charm and ability to win people over. He’s very likable and he can be thoughtful and kind to the members of the team, but at the same time his arrogance sometimes leads him to put them in uncomfortable situations in order to get what he wants. What he wants, more than anything, is to get Red John. Individual cases don’t seem of much concern to him and while he feels affection for his team members, he has also more than once displayed a willingness to walk away from them or to leave them behind in order to get what he wants.
Throughout the first season, he was given pretty much free reign to do what he wants in CBI and on particular cases (pretty much) because of his success in solving crimes. Interestingly, though, the second season began with that freedom taken away. Oversight of the Red John case is no longer with Lisbon’s team, and so Jane does not have access to all of the information on the case that he had earlier. The new case officer, Sam Bosco (played very well by the excellent Terry Kinney), finds Jane to be a charlatan at best and has no plans to share any information whatsoever with him.
This will be the recurring storyline of the season, clearly, marked with the level of progress Bosco makes with the case in relation to Jane’s frustration with being shut out of it and his resultant feeling of helplessness. He is driven by the sense of guilt he feels for baiting Red John and the horrendous price he has had to pay for that in terms of losing his wife and daughter. This season promises to ask a new question, “What will happen to Jane when his central motivation is mitigated by his inability to pursue the case that drives all of his actions? How will he function? How will he find a way to go after Red John anyway?” Jane is a shell of a man, really, with few attachments to other people. He finds it easy to charm others because he does not care about them. They are merely means to the end that he desires – revenge against Red John.
But while Jane is a shell of a man, he does still have some feelings. In a particularly compelling episode last season, the team investigated a murder in which a psychic was implicated. Jane repeatedly challenged and belittled her work and her “powers” as false. As a means of solving the crime he gathered all of the witnesses in a type of séance and had the psychic lead them all in a ritual that was ultimately a ruse. In the process of unmasking the killer, Jane also undercut the credibility of the psychic in front of all of the others, positioning himself as the ultimate arbiter of reason and authority. It was a clever move, one that befit him both as a personality and also as a detective. He likes to employ reason, observation, and logic to decode that which others cannot, and he likes to look good and gain authority in the process. But in an interesting twist at the end of the episode, the psychic relays a message to Jane from his dead wife and daughter, information that only they could know, information that he has never asked anyone for. The episode ends with him sobbing, clearly relieved at what the psychic has told him, but also shaken by the recognition that there may be something out there that does not hold to reason and logic. There may be information that he cannot access and control. He may not be all that he imagines himself to be, and he may not be able to enact revenge on the man who has badly wounded him.
Perhaps this is why people like The Mentalist. For such an easy to digest, by the book drama, it somehow has a tinge of complexity that keeps us coming back for more. The tension that the show enacts between doubt and certainty, between power and vulnerability, between control and chaos, holds the feeling of a deep reality. Who knew that such a disposable television program might contain such multitudes?