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The Mentalist

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.

17 comments to The Mentalist

  • spurge

    FYI

    CBI = California Bureau of Investigation

  • bigjohn756

    The character of Dr. Temperance “Bones” Brennan (EmlyDechanel) on the TV show Bones is certainly a clear thinking skeptic as well as an outspoken atheist, but, I rarely see her mentioned in blogs which do mention House and, now, Patrick Jane. Bones frequently tries to explain her position logically, but, her argument falls on the deaf ears of her FBI partner Seely Booth (David Boreanaz) who is a Roman Catholic.

  • TomWoolf

    If you want this same show with a bit of comedy thrown in, try “Psych”, which is in its 3rd season now.

    (No – that was not a subtle crack about “The Mentalist” being a knockoff. Each show is geared towards its own audience.)

  • peaches

    I haven’t seen the show but plan to catch it next week. I have high hopes based on both this and Phil Plait’s discussion of it. I am a bit worried about the time slot since it was put up against Dancing With The Stars, which has usually had good ratings, and Fringe, which has the lead in of House and a massive marketing campaign so it will do well early on regardless of quality. If The Mentalist can’t hold it’s own against tough competition it might get canned inside a few weeks. However CBS did put it in between two of their higher ranking shows which means the network must have high hopes for it. I just hope it can stick around long enough to develop good audience base and have a fighting chance in the ratings.

  • Fiziker

    Just watched it and loved the the first episode. No surprise since it was created by Bruno Heller. I agree with TomWoolf that people should also watch Psych. The main character pretends to be a psychic rather than coming clean to the other characters but at least the audience is in on it.

  • Exordium

    Kind of reminds me of Mr Monk.

  • Muero

    After watching the preview ads on TV for it, I tuned in to The Mentalist. I tried not to get too hopeful, considering how bad (both skeptic-wise and TV-wise) it could have ended up being. Well, from a skeptic’s point of view, the first episode couldn’t have been better. It also featured fairly likable characters and a decent plot. That’s important to keep this show on the air.

    I kept waiting, expecting a blog post here about the show, and I wasn’t disappointed!

    I’m not sure how much the general public will like this show, but I hope it stays just as skeptical and keeps enough viewers for it to stay on for a few years. I just wish I could buy the season pass on iTunes to show my support for the show (it’s not on iTunes at all). For the most part, it’s seems hard to influence whether a good show stays on the air (see Fox’s Arrested Development and ABC’s Sons & Daughters).

  • Traveler

    It might not be on iTunes, but the full pilot episode is available at http://www.cbs.com/primetime/the_mentalist/.

  • Steve Page

    Unfortunately, CBS don’t let non-USA citizens watch their online content.

    Bittorrent do, though. ;)

  • I will chuck it out. I saw the promos a few weeks ago and was impressed when the main character threw out the catch phrase about psychics. Maybe it will catch on. After all, how many more shows like ‘Ghost Whisperer’ and ‘Medium’ do we really need?

  • I liked it AND I’m still holding my breath. This was a pilot episode. Things change after a few weeks when the numbers start coming in. lets hope for the best.

  • larry coon

    You forgot to mention the forerunner of all skeptical shows: Scooby Doo.

  • MoosePasteInventor

    But Scooby Doo had several episodes with actually paranormal occurrences, such as the full-length made-for-TV movie about the were-cat thingies. After I saw that episode, I stopped watching that show :’(

  • MoosePasteInventor

    I just saw the show online, thanks Traveler for the link, and I have to say, it looks like it will be a pretty good show. I plan to record it on DVR in the future, and it looks like it will be a good companion to Monk for me, which I watch semi-regularly, also a good show, especially the recent episode where he goes to a hypnotist rather than real therapy, and it goes horribly wrong. I think this show might be great at spreading skepticism, because, as has been mentioned already, Patrick Jane seems very likeable, whereas Monk is someone who people feel bad for. =Þ

  • Nigel

    Dr. Novella has time to watch television? Amazing.

  • I watched The Mentalist with the same skepticism as any Psych fan (or skeptic). There are two cliche’s I am concerned about. One is the Christian/believer rookie to the squad. The writers may need her to come out on top a few times with trite victories (See: Lisa squeezing Marge’s hand on The Simpsons when a fraudulent angel skeleton recently excavated begins to speak and scares Lisa.)

    The other is the “traumatized” non-believer. You’ve seen this guy in almost every TV show and movie where a character is atheist or is a doubter. Some awful has to happen in their life to make them “hate God”. Otherwise, why would they be in disbelief, right? (I Am Legend, Signs) The character in The Mentalist came home to his wife and daughter slaughtered. Let’s hope this only makes him a more determined person, not a cynical one.

  • I watched a pre air leaked version of this and I was waiting for you guys to see it. I liked the main character very much.

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