On "The Mentalist," which premieres tonight at 9 on CBS, Patrick Jane is a former phony TV psychic who perpetually amazes and infuriates his skeptical colleagues at the California Bureau of Investigation with his ability to accumulate the odds and ends of human behavior and use them to formulate Incredible Truths that catch criminals. Played by the virtually irresistible Simon Baker, Jane also gets to make wiseacre comments like "He irks me; he's irksome," which only add to his already considerable charm.
It is such an appealing notion -- that all the information we need to unlock the secrets of the human heart is hiding in plain sight, peering from the photos on a person's refrigerator, obvious by the number of times he blinks when asked a question. Except, of course, it isn't.
What Jane has, beyond Baker's killer smile and the nothing-left-to-lose recklessness required of today's broken hero, remains to be seen. Certainly, he has the nihilism down pat.
When the newest member of the investigative team argues that some people, namely her cousin, really do have the ability to communicate with "the other side," he smiles a lovely sad smile and tells her: "There is no other side."
Within the first moments of the premiere, we see Jane at his most beguiling and his most irresponsible as he psychologically seduces a woman whose daughter has been murdered into admitting that she thinks her husband did it. To note that this was pretty obvious to everyone -- in the opening scene, the woman can barely bring herself to touch her husband as he speaks to the press -- would be almost preemptively picky. (But it was.)
Like every television antihero worth his salt, Jane is suspended and so almost misses out on investigating what seems like the latest murder committed by Red John, a serial killer with whom Jane has a special relationship. Mercifully saner heads prevail, to the eye-rolling irritation of Teresa Lisbon (Robin Tunney), the head of this CBI team. Like the boss of every unrepentant smarty-pants maverick we know (think Cuddy in pants), Lisbon lives in a state of continual exasperation/admiration, while the rest of the team -- Kimball Cho (Tim Kang), Wayne Rigsby (Owain Yeoman) and Grace Van Pelt (Amanda Righetti) -- just sort of rolls with the punches.
The murder is duly investigated, with Jane pulling several Holmesian rabbits out of his hat with varying degrees of gasp factor. Unlike Holmes, he does not always reveal how he came to a particular conclusion, which is a bit of a cheat on writer Bruno Heller's part. It's a solid enough pilot, with Baker and Tunney having just enough edge to promise something more than a standard quirky procedural. With those big blue eyes and that light-up-the-house grin, Baker certainly has the internal wattage to carry a show like this. Starring in shows including "The Guardian" and the short-lived "Smith" as well as in films like "The Devil Wears Prada," he certainly has done well as an actor, but he's not yet a Big Star. "The Mentalist" is a clear attempt to change that.
It's fun to watch the deductive process in action, as the millions of mystery fans everywhere can attest. But psychological sleight of hand can't fill an hour every week. For that you need complicated, interesting crimes and complicated, interesting characters solving them. "The Mentalist" seems prepared to deliver just that.