Does this hit show signal the end of the CSI era?
It would be premature to perform an autopsy on forensic-science cop shows, but this is the right moment to start searching around for some medical gloves to snap on. The genre—distinguished by its fixation on the screens-within-screens computer analysis of biological evidence, populated by investigators who scan that evidence to the sound of electronic music—has thrived as the dominant form of TV crime fiction from the turn of century. It now seems marked for slow death.
Last week, market leader CSI (unquestionably still a big hit) dropped about 4 million viewers from its season premiere. Last night on CBS, one of its franchises, CSI:NY, looked horribly under the weather. The victim—"the vic," as they always say in this universe—was a foxy fixer a la Jodie Foster's in Inside Man. The violence was graphic, and—splashy computer analysis being crucial to the mood—the graphics were violent. The show's coed fraternity of lab dorks and flatfeet linked her to the perp by considering clues that seemed desperately sensationalistic even by local standards—the smashed cover of a girly-looking flash drive (loaded with 64 zettabytes of dark secrets) and synthetic material from a high-end blow-up doll (a la Ryan Gosling's in Lars and the Real Girl). At the hollow center of it all, the detective/hero performed no detectable detecting. Gary Sinise, the actor in the role, would merely lend an ear here or squint competently there and manfully attend to the overwrought subplots. He seemed to feel as bored as I.
When professional criminologists get sick of themselves on police procedurals, they turn to ever more eccentrically specialized specialists on the one hand and to enchanted amateurs on the other. It seems that the FBI would be a shambles without the assistance of the mad-science geniuses on Fox's new Fringe and of an edgy biophysicist on CBS's new Eleventh Hour—not to mention the math-whiz of Numb3rs (CBS) and the academic anthropologist of Bones (Fox). If you dig Archilochus, you might class these heroes as neurotic hedgehogs and contrast them with the smarmy fox in the title role of The Mentalist (CBS, Tuesdays at 9 p.m. ET).
The Mentalist is the fall season's biggest ratings success, and why not? Its detective plots are cozily formulaic, its defining twist cheerfully preposterous. As cop-show comfort food, it's a kind of California fusion cooked up to appeal to people fed up with techno-beat lab scenes. Softening the sadism of a genre that leaves the mind strewn with beautiful corpses, it's as sunny as any entertainment devoted to homicide investigations could be, in terms of both temperament and solar glare. Often does the mellow protagonist squint winningly under the Pacific light.
Where are his sunglasses? Shades would only obscure the pale eyes of star Simon Baker, and those are his key selling point. (They flirt with some of Robert Redford's abashed dashingness, some of Richard Gere's pleased crinkle.) And his character inherently presents a face that's a mask. The hero, Patrick Jane, ditched a career as a TV psychic to pursue public service after a serial killer he'd dissed on air slaughtered his wife and child. A reformed phony nonetheless projecting a charlatan's charm, he's been issued wounds to hide—and, like his fellow fake supernaturalist on USA's Psych, he's got powers of deduction to shield.
I ask you, ladies: What is more attractive than a man who pays attention? A guy who understands your emotions better than you do? As an "independent consultant" to the California Bureau of Investigation, Jane's job is to go around feeling things. He displays keen intuition, yes—watch him serially humiliate a local-yokel sheriff at rock-paper-scissors—but he's also got hands good enough to hypnotize a distraught interviewee at a touch or to pickpocket a villain. I suspect it'll be a few seasons before Jane starts feeling on Senior Agent Teresa Lisbon (Robin Tunney)—a compact, by-the-books type—though, given the show's lack of subtlety, it could also be the case that Lisbon's last name indicates Sapphic preferences. The underlings on her unit are Wayne Rigsby (macho) and Grace Van Pelt (graceful), who do flirt often, and Kimball Cho (a bit fussy), who doesn't have anyone to flirt with because that's still generally how it is for Asian guys on prime-time television.
In a recent episode titled "Red Hair and Duck Tape," the mentalist and his entourage descended on Napa. The corpse of a goody-two-shoes high-school girl had turned up in a vineyard. The perp is not her besotted co-worker. Nor is it her drug-dealing secret boyfriend. (Here, Jane used his extraordinary talents of observation to get the boyfriend to open up in the interrogation room. "She made you feel like a dashing pirate," he said, remembering the scene before, when the guy was running right at him while holding a saber.) Meanwhile, the vic's younger brother has been lurking around with a hatchet in his backpack, and Jane gives the kid an empathetic talking-to about justice and vigilantism, as in a Big Brothers Big Sisters ice cream date. Jane's unorthodox idea for nabbing the murderer involves shrink-wrapping Van Pelt in a cocktail dress and sending her out to get abducted. Though this plan falls through, the unit still cracks the case, with Jane first detaining the husband-and-wife psycho killers through pure force of charm and Lisbon then gunning them down.
"Not every murder is a secret inside of a secret inside of a secret," Lisbon huffs to Jane at one point. If audiences were inclined to believe her, then this show wouldn't be emerging as a hit. As a character, the mentalist, with his heightened common sense, is an elevated everyman. As a show, The Mentalist sets the power of science on the side and says up with people. In turn, we're paying it attention.
Troy Patterson is Slate's television critic.
Still from The Mentalist © 2008 CBS.