The most striking thing about Warner Archive's Blu-ray release of the 2008-2009 first season of the CBS procedural "The Mentalist" is that that series excellently exploits the same high-definition technology that makes a typical local news team look like a parent-child pairing.
The settings of most "Mentalist" episodes are gorgeous natural areas in bright daylight or well-lit lavish mansions. Also, the wavy dirty blonde hair and dreamy blue eyes of hunky "Mentalist" star Simon Baker are as tailor-made for Blu-ray as the attractive but not-so-bright youngsters that occupy anchor chairs across the country.
As an aside, as the recent direct-to-video musical extravaganza film "Scooby-Doo Stage Fright" in Blu-ray illustrates (pun intended), this format is also especially well-suited to animation.
Relaying the concept of "Mentalist" helps understand one obvious comparison (and a few that are not so obvious) between this show and other television series.
The underlying theme is that Baker's Patrick Jane is a mentalist, which can be thought of in some circles as having Spencer's gifts, with a history of using his unusual ability to observe and analyze the world around him and use various techniques to manipulate people to earn a large income as a fake spiritualist who claims to have the ability to communicate with the spirits of dead people.
An easy way to do this at home for more fun and less profit is to fiddle with a napkin ring midway through a dinner party; everyone will follow suit within 10 minutes. Creating a run on animal crackers on a Jet Blue flight requires more skill.
Jane's addiction to fame takes him down a darker path by leading to taunting a serial killer known as Red John; Red John kills Jane's wife and daughter in response. This prompts Jane to join the California Bureau of Investigation as a consultant for the altruistic purpose of catching killers as atonement for his sins and the less-than-altruistic goal of using CBI resources to help him track down Red John.
The similarity of this premise to the much-lighter USA network procedural "Psych," which stars James Roday as fake psychic Shawn Spencer, has created an informal rivalry between the programs that is stronger on the side of the older series "Psych."
This playful competition is expressed in terms of dialog that digs at the other series; Spencer regularly refers to "the other show," and Jane likely states that there are no real psychics 10 times in the 22 first-season episodes. A special feature titled "Mentalist vs. Psychic" in the "Mentalist" Blu-ray set also helps distinguish the two series.
Spencer's gifts are virtually the same as Jane's in that he has a highly honed talent for observing and analyzing even small details. Also somewhat similar to Jane, Spencer's career as a police consultant begins when his altruistic habit of tipping off the Santa Barbara police puts him in a tight spot that requires maintaining the deception that being psychic is behind his extraordinary crime-solving abilities despite his knowing that some of his police colleagues know that he's not telling the truth.
Both "Psych" and "Mentalist" ultimately can trace their roots to the great-granddaddy of all modern detectives, the Baker Street dwelling original Sherlock Holmes. Like Spencer and Jane, Holmes makes brilliant deductions based on observations and often does not play well with others.
The Holmes-Jane connection creates hope for a (hopefully excellent) cross-over episode between "Mentalist" and fellow CBS procedural "Elementary."
"Mentalist" also strongly resembles the highly entertaining 1975-1976 murder-mystery series "Ellery Queen," based on the novels by the author of the same nom-de-plume. Jim Hutton, who is the father of actor Timothy Hutton, plays the titular character and even helps the audience solve the case in a short segment near the end of each episodes.
Queen's short speech, which breaks down the fourth-wall between the performers and the audience, highlights the clues from the episode and kindly and gently asks the audience if they figured out whodunit.
The common thread of "Mentalist," "Psych," "Elementary," and "Queen" is that all three detectives who are such a delight to watch (but who very rarely shoot) use their keen observational skills to save the day.
Examples of some clues being very obvious (but still entertaining) in "Mentalist" include carrions circling over a spot leading Jane's team to a dead body, a copy of the novel "Moby Dick" indicating subterfuge, and a picture on a wall providing the combination to a lock. It is equally obvious why Jane grabs the wrist of a no-nonsense law-enforcement officer.
The final connection between "Mentalist" and another classic show relates much more to Baker's awesomeness than the show's premise. Seeing CBI team leader Teresa Lisbon, played by "Prison Break's" Robin Tunney, try to keep from laughing when Baker ramps his wackiness into high gear is reminiscent of watching Pam Dawber's Mindy of "Mork and Mindy" try to keep a straight face when Robin Williams goes off on a riff. Baker's scarecrow imitation is not to be missed.
Watching the "Mentalist" pilot episode illustrates how CBS executives deduced that that show was worth giving a shot.
Having the first case revolve around an apparent Red John killing and using flashbacks in that episode tell Jane's origin story solves what can be considered the "Firefly" dilemma regarding having a pilot (of course, pun intended) tell an adequately compelling tale to attract a large audience while providing enough background to let said viewers understand what is going on.
The following clip, courtesy of YouTube, of this episode does a great job conveying the spirit (even non-mentalists know that this pun is intended) of "Mentalist" in 60 seconds or less. Seeing the quirky investigator mentioned below requires refraining from blinking.
The only disappointment regarding the pilot is that it seems to be the only time that the aforementioned adorkably quirky investigator, whose name is so quickly dropped that it is soon forgotten, appears before being inexplicably "Chucked" out (very subtle pun intended). This is akin to the regrettable decision of the producers of CBS procedural "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation" to transform highly entertaining lab rat Greg Sanders into a boring field investigator early in the series.
Similarly, moderate tension between the free-wheeling Jane and the more uptight Wayne Rigsby in the pilot leads to expecting a Spencer-Carlton "Lassie" Lassiter relationship; however, Jane and Rigsby inexplicably are good pals in the next episode and the rest of the series. (A gift of serious bling in one episode does not hurt.)
Much of the appeal of "Mentalist" that overcomes these questionable omissions relates to Lisbon and her agents essentially allowing Jane to lead the team. They literally jump at his commands, and watching them regularly release suspects based merely on his offhandedly instructing them to set said person of interest free is amusing.
A mid-season "Red John" episode is one of the best in that it has wonderfully creepy moments, offers a few truly surprising twists and involves a classic "locked door" murder. It is also nice to see both how co-workers at every level of the CBI hierarchy responds to the roguish Jane truly going rogue and how Jane's team reacts to losing their most effective investigative tool next to Jane himself.
Anyone with moderate deductive abilities can predict both that the season finale revisits the Red John storyline and EXACTLY why someone who knows said maniac does not meet expectations. The better news is that variations on the prior Red John themes, addition to the lore, and Jane showing a moderated dedication combine to make this episode a strong end to a good first season.
"Mentalist" is worth adding to your Blu-ray or DVD collection; Baker does an awesome job and is easy on the eyes; there is good humor, which is often at the expense of the local police forces with which the CBI team works; and the circumstances of each killing and the reveals that lead to solving those cases are worth watching. Additionally, watching the CBI team at work and play is entertaining.
These observations regarding "Mentalist" lead to further concluding that the producers, directors, writers, and actors put on a good show that makes those of us who figure whodunit feel smart and allow the rest of us to marvel at the wonder of it all.
Anyone with questions or comments about "Mentalist" or any of the other mentioned shows is welcome to email me. Finding me on Twitter via @tvdvdguy does not require the powers of a Jane, Spencer, Holmes, or even Mork.