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LOS ANGELES - I suppose if I had Simon Baker’s looks, or just his hair, I’d be the strong, silent type, too.


After all, there’s really no need to advertise yourself when the ladies instantly swoon at your close-up.


cover art

The Mentalist

Series Premiere
Cast: Simon Baker, Robin Tunney, Amanda Righetti, Tim Kang, Owain Yeoman
Regular airtime: Tuesdays, 9pm ET

(CBS; US: 23 Sep 2008)

“I spend 19 hours a day on the set with him and another three hours talking about him,” said his costar, Robin Tunney. “People stop me at the grocery store. I feel like I should have a list of answers: ‘Yes, he looks like that in person.’ ‘Yes, he’s happily married.’ ‘Yes, he’s straight - sorry!’”


Baker, an Australian camera magnet, has starred or co-starred in a string of CBS shows - “The Guardian,” “Smith” and now “The Mentalist,” America’s highest-rated new series of the season - without having to open his mouth very much. When he speaks, it’s in the seldom-raised voice of a man who knows there’s a microphone picking up his words.


For a while, it seemed like having a low profile on a network of outsized male leads was working against him. The network canceled “The Guardian” after three seasons. Then he played a nutty sharpshooter on “Smith” who whistled while he worked - in his case, work involved killing people. CBS pulled the plug on that one after just three episodes.


But network executives knew they had a good thing in Baker, and kept throwing ideas at him. Now look at him: “The Mentalist” is the third biggest show on CBS, behind “CSI” (whose male lead, William Petersen, just checked out) and “NCIS.”


“Of the hundreds of scripts I looked at since ‘The Guardian,’ I went with this one because Bruno gets it,” said Baker.


That would be Bruno Heller, best known as the creator of HBO’s $100 million toga party, “Rome,” who rose to an even greater challenge with “The Mentalist”: Write a crime procedural that doesn’t bore viewers by looking like all the other crime procedurals.


So Heller created Patrick Jane - onetime TV psychic, now crime solver. A man who used to make big bucks communicating with “the other side” but now uses his powers of observation to catch suspects off guard and exploit their weaknesses in order to create confessions. There’s nothing terribly original about “The Mentalist” (besides the procedural part, many viewers note that “Psych,” a comedy on USA Network, is also about pretend psychics), but it all works.


“I’m always drawn to characters that have a sort of a wrongness about them,” said Baker. “And what I love about this character is, he’s trying to come back. He doesn’t wear his wrongness on his sleeve.”


That’s true. Baker is essentially resurrecting the character he played on “The Guardian.” Back then, he was a moody, jerkface lawyer serving as a public guardian for at-risk kids, not because he wanted to give back, but because at his last drug trial, the judge told him too.


Now on “The Mentalist,” he’s also trying to pay society back for being a selfish bastard, not because he’s become a nice guy, but because he’s suffered.


“He’s a dark character whose heroism is not in muscles or action but in being positive in his life despite what he does and the tragedy that he’s faced with,” Heller said while chatting up reporters during a visit to the “Guardian” set in January.


The first time many people glanced Baker was as the Missouri bushwhacker George Clyde in Ang Lee’s ambitious Civil War film, “Ride with the Devil.”


“I gotta give it to Ang Lee, he had a very bold vision - a Civil War film, telling a coming-of-age story, that sympathized with the Southern bushwhacka,” Baker said, putting his native Tasmanian accent on the last syllable. “No wonder the studio had a hard time promoting it. But I think it holds up.”


“The Mentalist” was such an easy sell that some people predicted last summer it would be an out-of-the-gate hit. Still, it came as a surprise the first week of December when “The Mentalist” finished as the No. 1-rated show in all the land; that hadn’t happened to a first-year program since “Desperate Housewives” four years earlier. The show drew another huge crowd after CBS scheduled it to follow the AFC Championship game last month, and has already been renewed for a second full season.


Heller swears that psychics even are fans ... well, at least the fake ones.


“The entertainers I’ve spoken to love the show,” he said. “It’s great advertising for their schtick.” The serious psychics - not so much.


“My wife believes that stuff completely,” Heller said. “I don’t. The interesting thing is that the people who are good at are just using their natural gifts of intuition and empathy to a supernatural power. But they’re still pretending.”


Heller said the challenge now is to keep the show in “dynamic stasis,” not tinkering too much with the formula that’s bringing 17.8 million viewers to the telly every week.


Still, I couldn’t help notice that Heller had already resorted to one gimmick so soon in the show’s first season: Patrick, who hates rules for reasons never entirely made clear - the strong, silent type, remember? - has already threatened to walk out on his by-the-book boss (Tunney).


How many times, I asked, can Patrick play the “I quit” card before it gets to be tiresome?


Baker thought it a moment.


“I think seven,” he said. “I’ve threatened to quit once this year. Seven, then. One a year.”


“The Mentalist,” a seven-year hit? You don’t need to be Kreskin to tell you he’s probably right on the money.


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