The Mentalist: Series Premiere

Why do magicians have beautiful girl assistants? Because they’re reliable distracters of attention.

— Patrick Jane (Simon Baker)

Patrick Jane (Simon Baker) doesn’t sleep much. One reason, as he sees it, is his resistance to meeting with the doctors who dispense prescriptions. The process is tedious, he explains to one such professional. Doctors, Patrick says, his hair disheveled and his gaze steady, “always want to be the smartest person in the room and that’s me, obviously.”

It’s clear enough that Patrick believes what he’s saying. Throughout the series premiere of The Mentalist, he’s essentially circling anyone with whom he has a conversation, intellectually a step or two ahead, emotionally canny, and morally suspect. A former stage psychic who now works with the California Bureau of Investigation, Patrick brings much baggage — partly to motivate his cynicism, partly to grant him some smart-ass latitude. When he first appears, making himself a sandwich in the sleek kitchen of a wealthy couple whose daughter has been found murdered, Patrick peeps the details and the camera provides close-ups so you follow his thinking: fine crystal on racks, shiny metallic surfaces, family photos on the fridge that show the dead girl with her arms crossed over her chest when embraced by her dad. Much like the zooms and camera tricks that show Shawn’s point of view in Psych, the clues are hardly subtle.

And then comes the rub. The victim’s mother, Juniper (wonderful Gail O’Grady), wanders into the room and wonders at the stranger’s behavior. When he engages her in conversation, he’s showing off, telling her what he’s learned about her in the brief minutes he spent cruising her home (“You wish you’d been more adventurous when you were younger, you love India but you’ve never been there, your favorite color is blue,” yadda, yadda). “I don’t understand,” she murmurs, “You’re psychic?” and with that, Patrick reveals just enough to frame his subsequent discourtesy. “Just paying attention,” he sighs. “I used to make a good living pretending to be a psychic. I tell you this because I want you to understand there’s no point in trying to hide things from me.”

Again and again, Patrick dramatizes his sense of superiority, intimidating and irritating just about anyone who comes in contact with him. He doesn’t spend much time considering consequences, which annoys his coworkers, especially CBI team leader Teresa Lisbon (Robin Tunney). That he has a traumatic backstory for his bad behavior makes him a little like Charlie Crews on Life, though the specifics of that backstory make him even more like Sam Waters on Profiler: a still-in-circulation serial killer, “Red John,” already targeted his family and continues to harass Patrick with notes and murders with signature markers. Before you start feeling nostalgic for “Jack” and the consistently excellent Ally Walker, The Mentalist does offer its own charms, chief among them Baker’s low-key, apparently complicated sarcasm: Patrick walks a thin line, at once smug and disturbed, aggressive and vulnerable, each apparent mood or reaction wrapped inside another.

When he meets a new team member, the designated naïf Grace Van Pelt (Amanda Righetti), he instantly puts the kibosh on her belief in her cousin’s psychic ability, not to mention “the kingdom of God” and “the other side.” But even as he dismisses her faith (describing the seafood restaurant where the team is dining, he snipes, “Lobster and bread rolls and nautical kitsch, and then, whisssh”), Patrick evinces a teeny pang, if not imagining that he’s wrong, then that he’s mean, again.

The show uses Patrick’s obnoxiousness to different effects. When he isn’t pausing to consider himself, he’s taking out opponents — worthy and not — at the knees. At a murder scene, he loses patience with their skinny, greasy-headed, bloviating tech (Jack Plotnick). “You know what your problem is, my friend? You enjoy your work a little too much. You’re a ghoul. If you don’t get horny reading Fangoria, I’m Britney Spears.” When the geek storms out, Teresa confronts her troublemaker. “I’m sorry,” sniffs Patrick, assuming his superior pose and not sorry at all. “He irks me.”

By now, of course, eccentric white male smartypants on police procedurals are all too common. So are serial killers with personal axes to grind, demographically diverse investigative teams, flashbacks to former lives, and murder cases drawn from famous real-life examples (in the Mentalist pilot, that would be OJ Simpson, at least for a minute, when a famous golfer is suspected of murdering his pretty blond wife and her friend and tells the cops to find “the real killer”). And oh yes, the damaged protagonist seeking redemption and revenge. So far, Patrick appears to live somewhere just this side of decent: alternately creepy and deranged, he represses his anger and guilt, until he doesn’t. And then the “real killers,” at least, will suffer too.

RATING 5 / 10