When first seen in prime time, in a series called The Guardian, Simon Baker was a hotshot lawyer whose drug habit got him into so much trouble with the judiciary and his own stuffy firm that he had to pay do-good penance with an endless series of pro bono cases. This durance vile on the child advocate’s side of the fence was, of course, a radicalizing experience. Innocence inspired not only indignation but also empathy. We could tell he felt terrible by the tortured look on his handsome face while he listened to sad stories. In The Mentalist, in which Baker plays a TV psychic turned California Bureau of Investigation major-case consultant, this look is still to be seen, but only when he’s alone with his thoughts, regressed to his traumatic past, nursing his Philoctetes’ wound. To his colleagues, suspects, and the civilian world at large, Baker’s Patrick Jane is all dimples and twinkles, charming arrogance, and aw-shucks condescension, the kind of confidence man whose art is so slick we almost forgive his con.
Except that he’s no longer conning. On camera, assisting the police, he pretended to be a psychic, presuming to read the minds of malefactors, when his genius was really “just paying attention.” His pretense so offended one serial killer—nicknamed Red John because he painted smiley faces in blood on the bedroom walls of his victims—that he murdered Patrick’s wife and young child to make a gruesome point. Five years later, having quit TV in horror and disgust, Patrick still pursues Red John, now as an adjunct on a team of detectives that includes Robin Tunney, Tim Kang, Owain Yeoman, and Amanda Righetti, who need him as much as they resent him.
As the setup for a TV show, this is no more ridiculous than Profiler and at least as likely as Patricia Arquette. And so far, so-so. The pilot began with a marvelous red herring, following Baker’s Patrick into the kitchen of a bereaved family’s home, where he fixed himself a sandwich, steeped a cup of tea, and precipitated a deadly shoot-out. Only then did it shift to a double murder featuring siblings, adultery, golf, stun guns, sleeping pills, embezzlement, massage therapy, African children, and Johnny Cash. And it concluded with one of those Red John smiley faces seeming to weep on the desecrated wall. A subsequent hour, “Red Hair and Silver Tape,” followed the trail of a dead female body through Napa Valley wine country to a fancy restaurant, a local thug, and a little boy with a hatchet in his backpack. Both scripts were whippet swift, with enough wise guy to keep us grinding our teeth. Tunney, in nominal charge, manages to keep a straight glum face while doing most of the actual shooting, but she does say “Bite me!” with a subversive grin. The other members of the investigating team have, if not rounded backstories, a few spicy ingredients for developing personalities later on, as if they were seed packets for full-bodied characters in due time.
But The Mentalist will depend on Simon Baker’s Australian charm to keep us watching. If he somehow failed to make much of an impression in such big-screen productions as Red Planet and L.A. Confidential, he does have the sort of face the small screen frames and shadows, a living-room presence, maybe even a little dab of George Clooney. He should also be a healthy, rational, attention-paying alternative and corrective to the multitude of telepaths, unicorns, spoon benders, UFO abductees, and flying-carpet salesmen all over the paranormal TV dial.