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April 17, 2009

'The Mentalist'

Simon Baker By James Hibberd

I decided I liked CBS' The Mentalist when some thug punched Simon Baker's pretty Patrick Jane square in the nose and he squealed "Assault! Assault!" to nearby officers. Now that's a hero detective I could believe in. Along with Fox's Fringe, the show is the only new hit of the season, and PaleyFest had a panel for the series on Friday.

The first thing you notice is the Mentalist crowd is definitely a CBS primetime audience. The average person in attendance was roughly 72 years old. Some had nurses. The second thing you notice is that Broadcasting & Cable editor Ben Grossman did a fine job warming up an initially sluggish panel that included the show's creator and cast. He asked burning fan questions, not wonky TV industry questions. He asked, for instance, if any of the show's impossibly chaste characters will ever get laid (and we'll get to that answer, as well as eight unanswered burning Mentalist questions, below).

First, Mentalist creator Bruno Heller was asked about his inspiration for the show. He's told this a few times before, but it's worth hearing again. 

"Mentalists seem to be in a very interesting moral position," he said. "They're essentially performing the function of a psychoanalyst or a priest, but at the same time they're lying about their powers -- at least that's my opinion. Half the country will say they're charlatans and the other half will say, 'They said truthful and profound things about me.' And it's that line the mentalist walks on -- using their natural skills of empathy and observation in ways that are hopefully therapeutic and helpful."

For more on the show's inspiration, the producers recommend you watch this Darren Brown video to see mentalism in action.

Go ahead, check it out. This post will still be here when you return.

Baker (delicate, distracting glasses) gamely tackled the Mentalist vs. Fox's Lie to Me comparison. The Lie to Me cast, you'll recall, slammed The Mentalist as a "scam." Naturally nobody on the panel admitted to having watched the rival show (they never do), but Baker managed to take a shot anyway.

"The problem with high-concept is you get backed into a corner," Baker said. "So I was interested in seeing how Lie to Me, which is more finite -- I shouldn't say 'finite,' that's arrogant of me [a couple cast members chuckle knowingly at this]. But you say a guy is a human lie detector. And I was interested to see how Lie to Me would deal with that concept after five or six episodes."

Heller: "He lied. So what?"

Asked about the show's mysterious and as-yet-unseen villain Red John, Heller said, "What I was trying to do was create a show that was positive and light and optimistic about the world but was anchored in the reality of everybody's life -- which is dying."

The crowd goes silent. The CBS audience is closer to death than most.

"What crime shows do at some level is deal with death, but deal with it in a functional way. You get redemption out of it, you get revenge, you find the killer. But it's the anchor of darkness that allows you keep it light and keep it real. And Red John is that anchor, the reality of death in everyone's life. So in that sense he's mysterious and enigmatic."

Heller is always a hit at parties.

Baker was then asked if he's ever visited a mentalist.

"Whenever I was on a film on location I'd go to a psychic," he said. "It was something I did when I was lonely in lieu of prostitutes. You can give someone money and they'd tell you about yourself."

You get the sense this is more of a joke than an actual anecdote, but the crowd enjoys it anyway. 

And, oh yes, the character love-life question. It seems an online poll said 89% want to see characters Grace Van Pelt and Wayne Rigsby get together. But when asked if Robin Tunney's Agent Teresa Lisbon and Baker's Jane should ever get together, that number dropped to 57% (one group has also apparently given the Jane and Lisbon coupling the unfortunate moniker "Jisbon"). 

Tunney suspects her character's number is lower because women want to imagine Jane for themselves.

"They want him to walk in their front door and say, 'Hey baby I solved your crime,'" she said. 

Heller said the characters will have some romance ... eventually.

"It's deliberate that everyone is not getting laid," Heller said. "I don't think people get as laid as much in real life as they do on television. We'll go there but we'll go there carefully respectfully and slowly like you would in a real workplace."

"Is that fun to watch on CBS at 9 p.m.?" Tunney asked. "The chase is so much more fun."

Here's some other nagging questions about The Mentalist that I am certain, if passed the microphone and given the opportunity, I would not have had the guts to ask:

1. Does Baker share a hairstylist with the rest of the cast? Or does he have his own team of follicle-shaping continuity experts? Is Patrick Jane still too consumed with grief to go on dates, but still vain enough to get highlights?

2. Is Agent Lisbon gay? Every other character has sort of made their preferences perfectly obvious ... she's been seemingly deliberately vague. And the character's name, after all, is Lisbon. 

3. Why can't Baker do CBS' "on the next episode of The Mentalist" voice-overs in his character's utterly convincing American accent? Having urbane Patrick Jane suddenly sounding like the Crocodile Hunter is freaky.  

4. Why does the show's tone veer wildly from Sherlock Holmes to Scooby-Doo? One episode will be a clever post-modern procedural. The next has the entire cast getting hypnotized to commit criminal acts and a machine that programs people for evil. You watch this and think, "How can a show with a main character this smart treat its audience like they're this stupid?" And while holding that thought--

6. Am I the only person who makes duck-quacking-hand-gestures during the show's bouncy opening credits "whaamp-whaamp" theme music?  

7. Did anybody else always assume that C.B.I. was a made up law enforcement agency? (Real it seems).

8. Does Jane sleep overnight at C.B.I., or just take naps there? If overnight, what does he do while alone in the office? Order food? Surf the Internet? Get crazy and unbutton his vest?

PREVIOUS: Q&A with 'Mentalist' creator Bruno Heller


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Hibberd is an idiot. I was at the event, and I totally disagree with his audience comment. It was very diverse around me, but that wouldn't lend to his lame preconceived jokes about CBS audiences.

His praise of emcee Grossman was way offbase, too. Grossman was, well, just gross. Much too crude for this type of event, Grossman made the panel and the audience uncomfortable and was an awful host.

The Lisbon character has repeatedly flirted with Patrick Jane, actress Robin Tunney herself commented on it (and was so quoted by Hibberd in the piece!) so the #2 question is foolish. Hibberd, like host Grossman, is too juvenile for the job, straining for a very weak joke on the character's name instead of anything substantive.

The panel seemed bored and anxious to leave throughout the event, evidenced as Simon Baker & Robin Tunney raced away afterwards, disappointing many fans who approached the stage. All in all, a rather badly organized and horribly executed night at the Paley Festival not worth the overpriced cost of a ticket.

Whether Lisbon is gay has been wondered before, Hibberd isn't the first to ask it


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