This week I caught the pilot episode of The Mentalist on CBS. My first impression is that this show has the potential to be skeptically awesome. I hope it lives up to my early expectations. It was refreshing to watch a show with a lead character who is unashamedly skeptical and likable at the same time.
Other shows have done this to some degree. House is clearly a critical thinker, but we like him despite the fact that he is a complete jerk. Grissom from CSI is a likable skeptic, but his skepticism is very much in the background. And I despise pseudoskeptics like Scully from the X-Files, who relentlessly doubts the obviously paranormal activity around her. Scully was designed to be a hopeless character – because she lives in a fictional paranormal world.
Simon Baker plays Patrick Jane, a mentalist who consults for the CBI (I guess that’s a fictional FBI) using his keen powers of observation and critical thinking to solve cases. He is very much a Sherlock Holmes type character, and is very likable.
Even better, Jane used to be a stage fake psychic very much in the mold of John Edward. In the pilot episode we see Jane doing a fake reading. The TV audience is keenly aware that Jane is faking it, but the woman for whom he is giving a reading is reduced to tears of joy at contacting her loved-one.
Jane boldly declares that all psychics are fakes, and laughs a bit at the naivete of someone who believes they had a genuine psychic reading. He then gives them a quick reading to demonstrate how someone could easily fake psychic powers. The audience is very much intended to be in on the joke with Jane.
In fact, Jane’s catch phrase is, “Some people think I’m psychic. The truth is there are no psychics. I’m just paying attention.” If you go to the CBS website, they even reproduce some classic attention tests for viewers to take. Try them out. You can also send a fake cold reading to a friend (OK, it’s just a cheap promo, but it’s something). This is a good sign that the producers of this show get it.
It is clear that a major premise of the show is that mentalism magician tricks can be used to fake psychic ability. That, in itself, is awesome.
I was also happy to see that the show is well written with a good cast. I enjoyed the pilot episode. Hopefully this means the show will succeed simply as entertainment.
The one open question is if the show will remain true to itself. In the first episode there is no indication of anything truly paranormal or unexplainable going on. So far, Jane appears to live in the real world. This is the one potential I see for the show to betray its skeptical theme – if the writers feel they need to throw believers a bone by throwing in the suggestion that sometimes psychics are real. Let’s hope not.
Early indications are that The Mentalist is going to be a hard-core skeptical drama. And it’s about time. I also hope this is a sign of a backlash against gullible woo. Maybe being skeptical will be in vogue for a while. We can always hope.