Overmanufacturing Drama

I’ve been watching The Mentalist pretty much from the beginning and have enjoyed it and even written on it a little.  It’s a show that’s done well commercially in that it’s been a big hit for CBS, and something of a surprise hit at that.  But Smon Baker has a rakish charm as Patrick Jane and the cast has good comic timing with one another, so it’s not too hard to see why it’s been successful.

Having said that, I feel that the show is floundering a little.  Narratively, the show is structured for the most part so that each episode is its own distinct unit – there’s a crime and the team works to solve it.  But there are a couple of elements in the show that serve as links to a larger story within the team: for instance, Grace and Wayne have moved from flirtation to romantic relationship, and this has endangered them working together on the team because the rules say that you can’t have a romantic relationship with someone else on the team because it might effect your judgment in a situation or environment.

This rule makes sense, actually, and creates a useful tension in the overall show as it plays out over the course of time.  The problem from my perspective is, though, that I don’t see why the team actually needs either of these two to keep functioning.  What does Grace do well?  She seems a bit of a whiz on the computer and able to do electronic research better than the others on the team.  Rigsby is a strong type who is good in the field.  But is either of them irreplaceable?  Not really.

The team has a new boss, Agent Hightower, who has come in and seems to both want to shake things up and get the team to stick to the rules.  This threatens the team, because they often don’t play by the rules as the go about trying to solve a case.  Jane is at the heart of this, of course, as he often insults witnesses, skirts the rile of law, or goes against the book as he follows his hunches and his readings of people and situations.  But Jane is the team’s closer.  He can get away with what he does because he solves cases.  Hightower isn’t going to get rid of him because he’s the one who gets it done.

She has threatened Theresa Lisbon, the team leader, however.  If Lisbon can’t keep Jane in line, if she can’t resolve the Van Pelt-Rigsby problem, Hightower has said, then she’ll be gone.  That’s all well and good, and what supervisors on television shows are supposed to say.  But the problem is again that Lisbon doesn’t really seem essential to the team.

When have we seen Lisbon do something especially smart or clever or even strategic?  She’s actually someone who seems to want to go by the book, but doesn’t know what to do when members of her team stray from it.  She’s not a particularly strong leader – she just gives orders and others follow.   What case has she solved?  When has her role been especially vital in moving things forward?  Isn’t it easily possible to imagine another character doing the things that she does?

The one thing she does do that is important is that she makes and keeps Jane happy.  When she’s unhappy, moreover, so is he – which is what he told Hightower.  He’s using his own value to the team as leverage to get Hightower to leave Lisbon alone.  That’s fine, I guess, but there’s something in it that seems wrong.  Until the show gives Lisbon the chance to actually demonstrate her worth, I’ll question as a viewer why she is actually so important to the team and what it does – other than her ability to give Jane what he wants.

Of course, what Jane wants is to catch Red John.  We haven’t seen anything about him in a number of months, and it’s not clear when we will again.  Certainly they need to get back to that storyline – the one that pulls everything in the show together, the case that serves as Jane’s actual motivation for even staying on the team.  Without the chance to work on that case, he wouldn’t serve as a consultant to the CBI at all.

The show has become a little distracted with these other storylines, and I understand the impulse to develop characters over the course of time.  But they’re trying to develop dramas in these characters’ lives without actually developing the characters themselves.  And that’s a recipe for long-term disaster, because viewers aren’t going to follow their dramas if they don’t actually care about the characters themselves.  You can’t overmanufacture drama.  You need to trust in your characters, and trust in your viewers to follow their stories.

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One Response

  1. I don’t know if it’s a sign of a good or a bad show, but The Mentalist is something I can dip into in the middle when I’m flipping around the channels looking for something to stare at and there’s nothing in my tivo queue that fits the bill. Love looking at that pretty blonde Man, I have to say, and the show seems amusing – but not as amusing as my long-time fave “Bones,” and a new possibility, “Castle” (have been a sucker for Nathan Fillion since “Buffy” days, thanks Joss). But certainly your comment seems apropos of so many TV shows, yes? Trying to retain viewer interest with plot-lines alone, without deepening our commitment to the characters and their personal narrative arcs? That’s why, love it or hate it, “Lost” seems to work, and “Fringe,” ditto.

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