November 29, 2010

Lying to The Mentalist

At first glance, Lie to Me and The Mentalist seem complementary opposites, the former left-brained and "scientific," the latter right-brained and instinctual. In fact, the "science" is sketchy in either case. They're really both about emotive superheroes, like those empathic aliens from Star Trek. The true differences lie elsewhere.

I've warmed to Lie to Me as I've cooled to The Mentalist. It took a season of Lie to Me for Tim Roth to figure out his character, for the writers to figure out Tim Roth, and to whittle down the cast and decide what they're doing there. But the improvements have been for the better, and the show's gotten smarter as a result.

A ongoing drama series needs a good thesis statement. On House it's "Everybody lies." On Lie to Me it's "But their body language tells the truth." The clearer the thesis statement, the easier it is for writers to produce good scripts. Unfortunately, the opposite is just as true. The thesis statement for The Mentalist?

Maybe someting like, "All the world's a stage." But the argument is never made or countered. There's no conflict where the conflict ought to be focused.

This made the premise predictable and the casting confused. But Simon Baker fits the part so well I've been willing to give it a pass, just as I stuck with CSI: Miami longer than it deserved to watch David Caruso do his excellent B-movie noir thing. After a while, though, the sum of the parts leaves a rancid aftertaste that's hard to stomach.

There is a point where, no matter how talented, the lead can no longer carry a show past its flaws.

The first and worst narrative mistake in The Mentalist is the diabolical mastermind plot device. The Dark Knight was ruined by it, and Sherlock Holmes and Iron Man II were made lesser movies by it. It's a disease of modern storytelling that makes the villains in hoary old James Bond flicks look good by comparison.

Hey, Hollywood writers, stop trying to remake The X-Files and Silence of the Lambs! You're not smart enough! As a result, the antagonists aren't smart. Everybody else is dumb. Coming up with two dozen strokes of brilliance a year is impossible. The decline of The Mentalist is typical: start smart, grow progressively lamer.

Too many "mind games" consist of little more than baldly entrapping a suspect who behaves more like a badly-programmed automaton.

The inherent advantage of science and medical shows like Bones and House is that there's a lot more knowledge in the world than there are geniuses. Lacking brain power, unbelievable luck becomes a substitute for intelligence, like Lister's "good luck virus" in Red Dwarf. Deus ex machina powers at the fingertips.

My advice is to stick to ordinary crimes solved in interesting ways. When CSI: Las Vegas goes back to the basics--revealing the mundane demons of human nature through empiricism and flashes of insight--is when it gets good again.

The Mentalist also makes the same mistake that Dutcher made in Brigham City. To create an "interesting" protagonist, he placed the character arc behind him. True, too much character arc turns a show into a soap, which is just as bad.

But knowing that down in his psyche resides a core of ordinariness makes a quirky protagonist come alive. Now, as Kate argues, a character can have a static arc that never progresses. Except we can easily imagine Columbo, for example, going home at the end of the episode. Even superheroes have the dry cleaning to pick up.

That's not true of Patrick Jane.  Not only does he have no arc, he evaporates after the closing credits. Based on what the viewer is presented with, his life is mind-numbingly dull and pointless.

Better casting could compensate, but Kang's Cho is the only character who has mental chemistry with Jane, a kind of left-brained Spock to Jane's right-brained Spock. Otherwise, this Spock has no McCoy. He's a House without a Foreman and a Wilson. Sherlock Holmes rises to his best when Watson really challenges him.

Cho is also the only law enforcement officer who belongs in a so-called "CBI."

I expect shows about ostensibly competent professionals to feature them doing things competently and professionally. What's the rest of the CBI staff doing there? CSI: Miami jumped the shark for me when it resorted to moronic malfeasance to gin up drama. The Mentalist has skirted out-and-out incompetence so far, but only barely.

Okay, they hung a lampshade on the Rigsby/Van Pelt romance from the start, maybe to get it out of the way. But professional it isn't. Sadly stereotypical it was. This season especially, Robin Tunney does nothing for me. She's phoning in a Dr. Cutty routine. Aunjanue Ellis (Hightower) outshines her when they're on screen together.

Besides, what does Lisbon actually do other than scold? A smart stroke of casting on Bones was Tamara Taylor as Cam, a superior Brennan has to report to, and a competent medical examiner in her own right (though they have a bad habit of making her play dumb when Booth isn't around so the other squints can explain stuff to her, meaning us).

I'm cottoning to the idea that Jane is the diabolical mastermind, a more sociopathic Dexter (talk about your unreliable narrators!). But that's definitely not prime time material. So the nihilism at the heart of the show sits there, growing stale even as it drags down the drama like an old boat anchor.

A few seasons ago, Bones wandered down the diabolical mastermind path and nearly wrecked the show. The next season they pared down the cast, reaffirmed the premise, and got things back on course. It could be done with The Mentalist too, and pretty easily. But that thesis needs articulating.

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# posted by Blogger Joe
11/29/2010 8:05 PM   
I don't get Tunny either, but find Jane interesting enough to keep watching. Cho is great (the dating episode was hilarious.)

The bigger problem is what is CBI doing that couldn't have been done by the local jurisdiction? The inevitable solution is to make the locals incompetent and/or part of a conspiracy. Bones, Lie to Me, House and many other shows make this same mistake, though because they feature geniuses, the mystery too often becomes increasingly absurd.

(Psych is very self aware of the overlap and makes that part of the story. But it's a comedy.)
# posted by Blogger Eugene
11/30/2010 11:30 AM   
I love the Bones episode in which the rule-of-law sheriff tosses Angela and Hodgins in jail for a minor infraction, and everybody ends up agreeing with him. Frustrating the good guys in smart ways really pays off. I think a large part of the problem here is not only creating conservative characters who are believable, but communicating how they think. That's ultimately what makes the Booth/Brennan relationship work.
# posted by Blogger Kate Woodbury
12/01/2010 9:39 AM   
I think the reason X-Files worked is that the conspiracy never really mattered all that much (until Season 7). It never mattered whether the aliens came down and colonized everything because if they did, well, the show would be over don't-ya-know.

Hence, arc/conspiracy episodes weren't really about the conspiracy. They were about Mulder trying to discover information with Scully's help. They stayed on the characters' relationship, and on the people Mulder was interacting with. (The pay-off usually involved the CHARACTERS, not the conspiracy.)

But with The Mentalist, I can see the dim handwriting on the wall (I just finished Season 2). Red John is SO important, there's no possible way that they can pay him off with any degree of success.

I quite like Lisbon, but I agree that she is improperly used. When Bones and Booth light into each other is because they both have a point, and sometimes Bones is right, and sometimes Booth is right. But Jane barely listens to anyone, not even Lisbon. I often feel that Baker understands his character too well. Yeah, a guy like this would be unmanageable, but, um, Baker, it's television. We need some pay-offs.

The middle of Season 2 is really, really good. The beginning (Red John) and end (Red John) lag.

P.S. The great thing about Tamara Taylor is how she portrays Cam as completely amused. I always feel like she is humoring the squints. So you want to explain your whole intellectually-superior process to me? Okay, I'm a good administrator; I'll listen.