TV on DVD: The Mentalist -- The Complete First Season (2008-2009)

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One inadvertent side effect of the pop culturally aware banter that fills any given episode or advertisement of USA Network's hip series Psych is that it's so relentlessly witty, it'll stay in your head as though you were temporarily struck by James Roday's acute observational skills as a fake psychic.

And sure enough this just occurred in the most recent gag announcing the newest season of the series featuring Roday's character joking that CBS' hit Emmy award nominated series The Mentalist
was essentially a “carbon copy” of Psych which made me do much more than simply laugh. Being that both series center on a phony psychic who aids California law enforcement in piecing together the investigators' toughest cases, I became incredibly curious about the purported similarities. Thus when the PR wing of Warner Brothers offered critics a chance to view the newly released first season on DVD for reviews to dovetail nicely into the series' second season launch, I couldn't click “yes” fast enough to see whether or not it was a rip-off.

However and aside from honestly one of the weakest premiere pilots I'd seen in years (and one that I would've definitely passed on in favor of another recent short-lived Simon Baker series Smith costarring Ray Liotta), I realized when The Mentalist really grabbed hold of me with its second and incredibly solid installment that thematically, tonally and structurally the two series couldn't be more different.

Obviously I grant that the idea of a phony psychic who puts their skill as a sharply observant student of human nature into sizing up people was most likely inspired by USA's addictive fast-paced comedy but The Mentalist nonetheless relishes more in the psychological and sociological aspects of its fascinatingly conflicted main character.

And in his Emmy nominated role, The Guardian actor Simon Baker plays the formerly successful faux celebrity TV psychic Patrick Jane who plied his skill as a mentalist (described as “a master manipulator of thought and behavior”) and hyper-aware observer irresponsibly as though he were a magician, fooling audience members into believing he could read minds or commune with deceased loved ones.

Just one of the many morally ambivalent charlatans making a killing off those who need closure or answers in their life that series creator Bruno Heller (HBO's Rome) would see setting up shop on every street corner throughout Los Angeles, Jane crosses a line when he uses his intuition to judge, ridicule, and antagonize the dangerous serial killer at large known only as Red John.

When Red John takes out his revenge on Jane by murdering his wife and child while leaving his trademark bloody happy face drawn on the wall and a note for Jane which puts him in his place, the mentalist understandably suffers a breakdown since it was his hubris and action that led to their death.

Quite risky material for a main character to say the least as it borders on the Shakespearean yet Heller makes Mentalist's gray skies a bit sunnier shortly into the season when we realize that Baker's Jane has eventually come clean about his past. Channeling his anger and all the while trying to capture the man who destroyed his life, we encounter Jane working alongside four members of an elite unit of the California Bureau of Investigation to use his abilities for good in catching elusive criminals and solving impossibly perplexing cases.

While the pilot is necessary to establish character and background, it's overly dark, smug, claustrophobic, and unlikable which at first alarmed me into wondering why with 17 million weekly viewers, The Menalist had been the most watched new series of last year, until the episodes that followed it became ingenious, impressive, fascinating, and much more charming in spirit.

Given his unorthodox style of asking inappropriate questions or testing an individual's personal boundaries by invading their space via holding stranger's hands to study their pulse and other tell-tale signs, Baker's winningly charismatic and offbeat take on Jane is a thing of beauty as we watch him work.

Seemingly also inspired by Monk in that his main drive is to catch Red John and in doing so, he's willing to exact murderous revenge (like
Monk) on the man who took away his beloved family and other anti-police procedural shows with a wild card like Jimmy McGovern's Cracker and others, he's paired up with a unique ensemble cast and kept in line with a woman who understands him best.

Joking that at last she's playing an individual who is actually employed, the underrated and rarely utilized Robin Tunney shines as Jane's loyal yet strong-willed superior Teresa Lisbon. In the series, Lisbon heads up the team at the California Bureau of Investigation that Jane works with as a consultant alongside the group's newest member Grace Van Pelt (Amanda Righetti), the officer hopelessly in love with her (Owain Yeoman as Wayne Rigsby) and the by-the-book, budget conscious, and detail oriented Agent Kimball Cho (Tim Kang).

While it's far from a traditional serial killer show as Red John is only dealt with directly (and always offscreen) in a handful of episodes including the first season's brilliant finale that evoked two plot points from Silence of the Lambs and Red Dragon from The Hannibal Lecter Anthology, his presence lingers throughout the show. For, even at its most offbeat, unrelated, and strangely witty, each episode is named in honor of the man Jane is after by alluding to the various shades of red in endless phrases like “Thin Red Line,” “Red Rum” or “Crimson Casanova.”

Aside from the fact that the whodunnit paradigm became a bit recognizably repetitive near the end of the season as I was able to identify the culprit fairly easily, for a majority of this season's twenty-three episodes I found myself consistently baffled by the unmasking of the villain. Naturally as well, The Mentalist is a throwback to the best set-ups in the genre as Jane and the California Bureau of Investigation crack a long-closed “locked door mystery,” find their own in peril a few times when those we've trusted reveal they're not who they seem and more clues about Red John come to light.

Additionally, further developing a stronger back-story for the main ensemble which is rarely done in most traditional law enforcement television series, Heller's decision to-- as Baker notes in an extra feature-- "wink" at the traditional police procedural form of storytelling is its strong suit. While again obviously Psych, Monk, Cracker, and other series spring to mind as influencing The Mentalist, overall Jane's Sherlock Holmes style obsession regarding the most seemingly insignificant details which he shares with the leads of those series as well as Arthur Conan Doyle's initial fictitious creation is a tried and true character given a nice comic yet noir vengeance filled twist.

In addition to Baker's completely convincing portrayal, The Mentalist as a mystery series owes the most credit to cleverly tricky editing and camera placement that keep you on your toes as shots often work against the most brilliant asset via its ingenious writing team as The Mentalist earned an International Dagger award nomination from the British Crime Writers Association in 2009.

Admittedly a marathon viewing of the series did make some of the weaker plots seem far more glaring than some episodes so brilliant they could've worked as standalone movies for Poirot devotees. Likewise, although the odd blend of satire and gore in the uninviting pilot may turn off new converts, if you stay with it and watch it unfold like the great "showman" Jane is hunting and the one he used to be as a phony psychic, I think fellow Psych fans will be able to appreciate the major differences between the works.

Still, despite this, for sheer lightness in addition to how the series would fare in repeats, I'd still go with Psych every time. Yet I have to note that The Mentalist succeeds as a terrific brain teaser with intellectually challenging cases. Basically, Baker's show provides the dinner before the fun dessert of Roday's adventures as a phony who hasn't come out of the psychic closet yet and admitted he's a fraud which further differentiates the two and works to the advantage of both clever series.

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