TV is now awash with crime dramas featuring investigators with a special ability that helps them stand out from the crowd. The Mentalist isn’t blessed with the same ambition or technical brilliance of House, and with so many competitors coming out of the woodwork, that the show made it to season four is down to its timely debut as much as anything else.
Season three ended with our mentalist Patrick Jane, played by Simon Baker, apparently coming face to face with the serial killer red John, the man who murdered his family. Season four continues exactly where the previous season finished, with Jane being taken into custody for the murder of the man he believed to be Red John. The charming mentalist displays his intelligence and cunning by defending himself against the charges, and walking free. He displays his most sinister side, however, by admitting the identity of the man he killed may be in question.
This all starts season four in a distinctly dark light. This is mostly thrown off, however, as the season starts in earnest, and Jane resumes his duties with the CBI. There is internal wrangling within the department thanks to the events of last season’s finale, and the spectre of Red john looms large as an FBI investigation is triggered. Episode to episode, however, we are faced with the familiar formula of the past three years. Jane’s teammates, Rigsby, Cho and Van Pelt investigate, under the guidance of senior officer Lisbon, whilst Jane saunters around proceedings, alternating between his charm routine and his thornier persona. We all know he’ll reach the answer, and he usually does with ease.
For me, The Mentalist’s biggest weakness is in its supporting characters. Rigsby and Van Pelt are soul sappingly dull. Despite the writers’ best attempts at giving them interesting sub-plots, they remain as bland as ever. Van Pelt is scarred by the revelations that her fiancé was working for Red John, and the fact she was forced to kill him. As a result, her character has become darker and more aggressive, but it’s difficult to buy into, or care. Rigsby is given even less to do dramatically, despite having his personal life turned upside down. When a character falls in love, conceives and is changing nappies within a season it doesn’t ring true. When you are mainlining episodes on DVD it becomes ridiculous.
Cho ends up with a play on the familiar ‘tart with a heart’ storyline. The writers’ attempts to humanise him work, just about, but he was, ironically, a far more interesting character to begin with. His tough guy routine should have meant his character came across as two-dimensional, but he seemed far more real than the others, and chipping away at that was a big risk. Robin Tunney’s Lisbon is another character that is, on the surface, pretty bland. Tunney manages, however, to somehow infuse the character with an authentic mix of weariness and professionalism that serves to distract from the fact that she does the exact same thing every week. Even Jane has noticed this, making light a couple of times of the fact that her sole job seems to be to run down suspects once he has proclaimed their guilt.
The plots are smart, though all require suspension of disbelief. Some of Jane’s deductions are so outlandish, that there is no hope of ‘playing along at home’. In most circumstances, this degree of ridiculousness would be a turn-off, but it is the show’s biggest asset that stops this being an issue. Simon Baker, who really IS The Mentalist. He has an effortless charm and perfect delivery, and is so earnest in his portrayal, it is difficult to imagine anyone else playing the character. The character’s only failing is in the writers’ apparent obsession with painting him as infallible. He is almost always right. His feathers are never ruffled, and even when facing a murder charge, there is not even the merest hint of sweat upon his brow. This can get tiresome, and you do find yourself wishing that he gets something completely wrong. If his fellow team members were allowed to actually outshine him on occasion, it might go some way to making them a bit more consequential.
The Mentalist has always had an odd tonal mix. It is the story of a man searching for his wife and child’s killer, yet is played for comedy 90% of the time. The sinister backstory is at odds with the show’s fluffy execution, something that is addressed, if not rectified, during this season. The overall plot threads are darker than usual, and the season is bookended by dark events. There is still a lot of circus throughout the middle, but this is fine. The humour of the show is probably its most successful element, and no-one would want it stripped out. The balance just needs to be better maintained.
Overall, this is a very enjoyable season. The Red John storyline has been arguably stretched out too far, and looks to continue rumbling on. Yes, it’s true that Red John is the motivation for Jane’s co-operation with the CBI, but there’s nothing to say his motivations cannot be redirected. The Mentalist is at risk of going stale, with the same major villain and the seam core cast enduring into its fifth year. If the show remains resistant to change, it may well run out of steam. If that happens, season four may well be remembered as one of its best years.