The last ten minutes of last season's finale episode of The Mentalist were about the most interesting in the show's history. They marked the first and, unless the show's fans have some flashbacks to look forward to, only appearance by Bradley Whitford as a man who contrived to meet our hero, Patrick Jane, in a mall food court and identify himself as Red John, the fiendishly clever serial killer who murdered our hero's wife and daughter. (For the benefit of any Mentalist virgins, it was this traumatic incident that inspired Jane, who had parlayed his highly developed powers of observation into a lucrative career as a phony psychic, to use his powers for good and become a consultant with the California Bureau of Investigation.) It's a sign of how thoroughly played out serial killers have become that, after holding such a dominant place in popular culture fifteen to twenty years ago, they all have seem to have retired to CBS.
Whitford really got into the part, though. With his weary affect and dry delivery, he seemed coiled, capable of striking but not about to if he could help it, and he got to deliver a teasing speech about how he was preparing to retire from the brilliant-serial-killer game and maybe do some good for a while, for the change of pace. (The speech sounded as if it might possibly have been written by someone who had fond memories of Mr. Mxyzptlk's speech at the climax of Alan Moore's "final" Superman story, "Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?") Then Jane shot him dead and sat back down, in the now suddenly abandoned food court to finish his tea. It was a pretty good cliffhanger, leaving open all kinds of questions about the consequences of Jane taking the law into his own hands and how his identity, his mission in life, and his ongoing grieving for his destroyed family and lost life will be affected by his own destruction of his arch enemy.
Picking things right back up where they'd been left off, the season premiere quickly established that one consequence of shooting a man down in cold blood while surrounded by people who are trying to drink their Jamba Juice is that you get thrown in jail. Considering how many shows would have been tempted to just bask in the glow of their big thrilling cliffhanger and then write their way out of it with a scene in which (say) the governor declares the shooting a righteous kill in recognition of the hero's distinguished record of good works and dreamy blue eyes, I suppose this counts as an impressive stroke of realism. It turns out that Whitford's gun, which both Jane and the viewing audience had seen clear as day, melted or got beamed up by aliens or something by the time the cops showed up, so it actually looks kind of bad for our food court vigilante.
Hauled before a judge (played by Ken Lerner, an actor who might just hold the all-time record for looking more bored on-camera than his material warrants, even on this show), Jane says that he thinks some time in the crowbar motel might be good for him, and the judge, not looking to disagree, sticks him with a million dollar mail. That means that, for a while at least, the audience has to make do with watching the supporting cast while Simon Baker is modeling prison blues and, maybe for the first time in his TV career, playing someone who. under the circumstances, has reason to try to dial back his adorableness a little.
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That guarantees that The Mentalist's hot streak will be short-lived. Although the actors who play the other members of Jane's team are a mix in terms of their gender and ethnicity, even they might have trouble telling each other apart. The most prominent of them is Lisbon (Robin Tunney), who took a bullet in the season finale and is first shown here sprawled in a hospital bed, looking pensive and troubled. Whenever Robin Tunney looks pensive and troubled, whatever the reason, she just looks as if she's wondering how differently her career might have turned out if someone had pushed Zooey Deschanel in front of a subway train back in 2002. As soon as the producers get a look at the rushes of the Baker-less footage, Jane decides that prison life has done him enough good and pays his bail with money he wins from the fastest and most high-stakes prison poker game in history.
If I say that, going into its fourth season, Simon Baker remains the only thing that The Mentalist really has going for it, that's not to say that a lot of shows have had to get by on a lot less. Baker has so much natural charm that audiences naturally want to like him, and both The Guardian—the show that made him a TV star after a brief flurry of movie roles—and The Mentalist give him the chance to play characters who have the naughty but basically uncomplicated appeal of good guys who came to heroism partly as a result of something shifty they were doing in their previous lives. (Their bad-boy past is also the cause of the pain they're in, which they carry with a stoic dignity; whatever's threatening to wipe the smile off Baker's face is not for general consumption.)
As an actor, Baker's best trick may be his ability to make you feel the panicky desperation behind his golden boy exterior when things aren't going his way. He used it in his small role in L.A. Confidential, as a young actor who's persuaded to participate in a blackmail entrapment scheme to save his broken career (and ends up dead on a motel room floor), and he uses it well in tonight's episode, when Jane, who's just been sprung from prison and, for once, is uncertain enough of himself to possibly be off his game, struggles to connect with the widow of the man he killed. It's not his only trick, but it's about the farthest The Mentalist ever asks (or allows) him to stretch. The most alive Baker has ever been in a TV series might have been on Smith, where he played a professional thief who maintained his unearthly cool whether he was working a job or casually murdering a couple of dudes who'd hassled him for surfing on their stretch of beach, but who looked stricken during an airplane flight in bad weather. I'd love to see Baker play more of those kinds of harder-edged, dangerous roles, but then, I'm one of the few people who watched Smith; it only lasted seven episodes.
The point of The Mentalist is that Jane always triumphs because he knows how to read the tells that people give off (and, in that poker game, how to fake them). The funny thing about the show is that, because of its own predictability and aggressive mediocrity, it's so easy to read. It's not much of a surprise when the Donna Reed-style widow turns out to be a stone psychopath, because if she were really the sweet innocent she pretends to be, it would be callous of Jane to go see her, and The Mentalist isn't the kind of show that would risk having you see its hero as callous, even when he's fighting to stay off death row. And when the show isn't tipping its hand, it's stacking the deck: at the end of the episode, Jane, having talked his way to a not guilty verdict (while serving as his own lawyer, so as not to contradict the show's pattern of having him as the only competent person in sight, not counting serial killers), suddenly reveals that he somehow knows that the man he shot, while "an evil man" who had it coming to him, wasn't really Red John. Thus his quest for revenge can go on, and so can the show's romance with the worn-to-the-nub stereotype of the genius homicidal lunatic as master puppeteer and chess master. For a show that talks a fair amount about the dark and edgy side, The Mentalist couldn't be safer if Jane and Lisbon reported to H. R. Pufnstuf. It's even programmed to climax, reboot itself, and keep going on forever, or however long the ratings hold up. It wants to have its serial killer and shoot him, too.