Last year's survivors look to avoid sophomore slump

Aaron Barnhart
McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

Last week we looked how some of this season's most promising new TV shows were faring a couple of weeks in. Now we change the channel to those shows that were among last season's most promising ... and which managed to rustle up enough viewers (in some cases, barely enough) to earn a spot on this fall's schedule.

"The Mentalist" (10 p.m. Thursdays, CBS). Last season's biggest debut seemed a no-brainer: proven CBS ladies' magnet Simon Baker plus crime format equals ratings gold. It also turned out to be a no-brainer in another sense of the word. With the story lines so implausible and the writing so pedestrian, "The Mentalist" earned a reputation as almost campy escapist fare. But hey, whatever works, right?

This season's premiere picked up where last season left off, with ex-psychic Patrick Jane (Baker) still kind of haunted by the smiley-face killer Red John, who took his wife and daughter, but mostly just having fun playing the least plausible crime-solver since Jessica Fletcher. Then the stakes ratcheted up as he, Teresa (Robin Tunney) and the rest of the bureau team were taken off the Red John case and replaced with a suspiciously well-informed cop named Bosco (Terry Kinney).

The audience tuned to "The Mentalist" dropped from 17 million in the spring, when it followed red-hot "NCIS," to 15 million this fall, when it follows ice-cold "CSI." But more younger viewers are now watching, and it doesn't take Kreskin to predict a bright future for a show that gets a 10 in the demo.

"Dollhouse" (9 p.m. Fridays, Fox). While we're at the wack end of the plausibility spectrum, let's catch up with a show that is pulling in one-third of the viewers of "The Mentalist," yet so far has managed to cheat death. "Dollhouse" has always held promise as a present-day futuristic thriller, because the themes of self-discovery and amnesia are brilliantly attuned to the aspirations of 20-something American youth. Also, Eliza Dushku is hot. Anyway, the show went through some fine-tuning over the summer — the creepy FBI guy Ballard (Tahmoh Penikett) is now in-house as Echo's (Dushku) handler and Langton (Harry Lennix) got a promotion to head of non-security (since no one's figured out how to keep the rogue fleshbot Alpha from breaking into the dollhouse and wreaking havoc). But the most important development is that Echo now knows that she is programmed to forget. Now the race is on for Echo to reclaim her past before nervous executives at Fox decide to forgo "Dollhouse's" future.

"Castle" (10 p.m. Mondays, ABC). And speaking of stars of doomed Joss Whedon shows, Nathan Fillion has settled in as one of TV's great scenery-chewers working today, thanks to this midseason series that ABC picked up for another season. As author-crime solver Rick Castle he's allowed to flirt with pretty women — including his reluctant partner in crime solving, Beckett (Stana Kanic) — while brilliantly picking out the clues hiding in plain sight from the battle-hardened NYPD types around him. (Between "Castle," "The Mentalist" and "Lie to Me," it's been quite a comeback for old-fashioned gumshoe detective work.)

"Parks & Recreation" (8:30 p.m. Thursdays, NBC). The "Office"-inspired Amy Poehler vehicle tops my list of spinach TV — a show I know I'm supposed to like but am just having a hard time swallowing. I'm not the world's biggest fan of "The Office," but I love the pedigree of "Parks & Rec's" co-creators: Greg Daniels, who helped Mike Judge breathe life into "King of the Hill"; and Michael Schur, who has many television writing credits but the only one I care about is his time writing the Fire Joe Morgan blog under the nom de guerre Ken Tremendous. Who doesn't like Poehler, and who can resist a supporting ensemble that includes the lovely Rashid Jones and hilariously crass Aziz Ansari?

For whatever reason, though, this attempt to form a mockumentary around an ambitious, if politically incompetent, parks bureaucrat Leslie Knope (Poehler) isn't clicking with me yet. A recent "Parks & Rec" about a community garden Leslie planted in her adopted city pit had a decent payoff, but took forever to set up. That episode only pulled in about 60 percent of "The Office's" not exactly supersize audience, but the number of people willing to check it out on their DVRs is encouraging.






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