We all know by now the problems with major-network TV. There are too many other channels, other media, other diversions. The audience has been sliced and diced into confetti, and it is no longer possible for a new drama to get tens of millions of viewers to sit down on their couches and watch the same thing at the same time.
And then there's The Mentalist. CBS's latest crime procedural, starring hunky Simon Baker as phony psychic turned sleuth Patrick Jane, is not just the biggest new hit of the season; it is arguably the only new hit of the season. It reliably draws huge audiences, even in weeks when it has run against American Idol as many as 20 million viewers, nearly double the audience of the nearest new contender, Fox's Fringe. (See the top 10 TV series of 2008.)
There is, at first blush, no good reason for this. There is nothing unique or distinctive about The Mentalist (which is not to say that it's a bad show more about that in a minute). There's no cutting-edge science, no fancy camera work, no how-did-they-think-of-that hook. Every week, Jane goes out, talks to people, observes details and solves uncomplicated cases the same way Columbo did 35 years ago. We've seen this a million times before on television.
And that's exactly the point.
In today's media environment, there are two ways broadcast networks can draw a big audience, as they did in the halcyon precable days. One is by programming series, like Idol and Dancing with the Stars, that are essentially sporting events. That is, they are simple to follow, they can be enjoyed by a wide demographic and age range, and most important they have no shelf life. There are winners and losers, and spoilers abound the next day. So you watch them that night, as they happen not on DVR or Hulu or you might as well not watch them at all. And that means you watch them with commercials, without which network TV becomes a charitable enterprise.
The other way is to program TV for the shrinking, but still substantial group of people who don't want TV to change. There remains an audience unwilling to study quantum physics and comparative religion to watch Lost; who do not have a Slingbox stacked on a TiVo on top of an Apple TV; who simply want to turn on a TV set at the end of a long day and watch an uncomplicated damn TV show, in real time, on the hour, the way God intended. (See the 50 best inventions of 2008.)
This is CBS's audience sometimes older, sometimes not, but generally more conservative in its tastes and the network serves these people perfectly. While competitors make TV to court fickle viewers distracted by video games and the Internet, CBS with crime shows like NCIS and sitcoms like Two and a Half Men makes TV for people who like television. (How old school is The Mentalist? You can't even watch it online.)
That said, The Mentalist works because it's such an elegant example of its kind; if it's comfort food, it's prime-grade meat loaf. Much credit goes to the sly scripts, overseen by Bruno Heller (HBO's Rome), which take the viewer to familiar places by clever routes, providing a jocular corrective to the relentless noir gore of CSI et al. The mysteries are engaging but not byzantine; you can probably figure out the culprit just a step before Jane does. And who doesn't want a handsome man to make him or her feel smart?
But chief credit goes to Baker, and not just because he's easy on the eyes. His (mildly) reformed flimflam man takes a cool, roguish pleasure in solving murders by reading the same tells and tics he once used to con people into thinking they were talking to dead loved ones. In one episode, he offhandedly tells a suspect woman what her type is "sporty bad boys with a hidden masochistic streak" and when she denies it, he grins and adds, matter-of-factly, "No, that was a bull's-eye."
The joy of the scene is Jane's sheer satisfaction in figuring out what makes her tick; murder or no, he'd be glad to throw in the embarrassing revelation as a freebie. There's something creepy but delightfully so about how Jane looks at the rest of us as simple machines whose gears he can see whirring on the surface. CBS, which gets a 60% female audience for The Mentalist, has sold Jane as a woman's fantasy: "Finally, a man who listens." But really and entertainingly he's more like a superman who listens in.
At this moment, the networks are finalizing their fall slates to announce to advertisers in May. Can they bring back the glory days by cloning a dozen Mentalists? Doubtful. The audience for throwback TV is limited, and CBS has close to a lock on it. But the competition is still likely to try. As Patrick Jane knows, people are greedy and prey to temptation, and they fall into predictable patterns of behavior. It doesn't take a psychic to see that.