the mentalist IS great!! It takes the tried-and-true format of “crime procedural but the protagonist is a consultant with a gift”, but it deviates from the cable crime show norm in a few subtle but powerful ways, and those deviations are specifically why The Mentalist is great.
First, and personally, most importantly, Patrick Jane and Theresa Lisbon have virtually no sexual tension for the vast majority of the show. They aren’t interested in each other and, more importantly, the writers aren’t interested in putting them together, which was SO refreshing. Platonic, professional relationships that, largely, remain distant through a show’s run are almost never explored on network television.
This is especially true of opposite-sex partners, who always have ‘a quiet moment’ with their peer that invariably pushes them towards something more. But Jane never wants to get close. To anyone. His family was murdered. He just wants to kill the fucker who killed his family and he literally doesn’t care what happens after that. Death, prison, whatever. The dynamic between Lisbon and Jane is consistently contentious because of Jane’s purposeful distance, keeping him in her good graces with his skill and incredible charm, and then pushing her away by repeatedly breaking her professional trust, typically in direct conflict with the criminal justice system.
(Rigsby and Pelton’s immediate “”"’'chemistry" '""" acts as a (probably unintentional) counterpoint to Lisbon and Jane. It’s boring, predictable, and unbelievable. Hell, even that was handled in a neat way early on! Their relationship puts their jobs together into question, and when it’s time to make a decision, you think “well Rigsby’s gonna do what he has to do to make this relationship work” and then BAM Pelton hits him with “my job is more important to me than our relationship” and makes his doofy ass work with her post-break-up!! Grace was always too good for that Clark Kent lookin motherfucker anyway)
Now, although Jane is a closed book, his combination of social skills and a willingness to give to others what they need puts him in some extremely personal, sometimes dark positions. He became wealthy in his previous career as a television psychic, and now feels nothing for his money or material goods. He doesn’t have a home and only seems to own a car and a teacup. He gives his money away, buys people things they need, reunites people with things or people they have lost, assists in committing acts of vengeance, and even bears witness to the suicide of a terminally ill man.
For all of his interpersonal and professional selfishness, he seems to feel that personal sacrifice matters little. He dashes himself and his heart against the strife of others because he knows that, no matter how much of himself he has left to give, he will be empty when he kills Red John. It’s a dark approach to characterization that you just don’t often see on network television, and that coupled with the light tone of the show makes it a uniquely soft space to spend time in.
Lastly, Simon Baker fucking owns this role. I can’t and don’t even want to imagine him as anyone else, and I was already familiar with him prior to getting started on this show. Baker imbues Jane’s futureless perspective with a levity that the vengeful father archetype just never has, and Baker’s effortless confidence is utterly irresistible. When he’s working a mark, he shifts from flirtatious to hard indifference as soon as he learns what he needs to know and…you buy it. I can think of a few other actors who could pull this off, and several hundred who couldn’t. Even when the show is at its weakest, Baker is on, and spending time with him and Robin Tunney as Lisbon is nice no matter how weak that episode’s supporting characters are, or how convoluted the Red John mystery gets.
It’s comfort food with some indispensable quirks that elevate it from something like NCIS to [its extremely close parallel] Monk. Through the lens of network television, The Mentalist is great, and if you are okay with debasing yourself with non-prestige television, The Mentalist is great, and also Simon Baker is great so The Mentalist is great
this is LONG!!!