An impressive trick: ‘Mentalist’ is TV hit

By Lynn Elber

BURBANK, Calif. — In a ho-hum TV season in which most new shows have been greeted with a collective shrug and a click of the remote control, CBS’ freshman “The Mentalist” has managed to deduce what viewers want.

It offers tousle-haired charmer Simon Baker as Patrick Jane, a faux psychic jolted by personal tragedy into newfound ethics and a job helping California state crime fighters.

There’s the appeal of a mystery wrapped up within each episode, joined with Patrick’s quest to catch the serial killer who took the lives of his wife and child.

And there’s creator and executive producer Bruno Heller, fresh off the triumph of HBO’s miniseries “Rome” and looking for a new challenge, who’s deftly mixed a traditional whodunit with the journey of an emotionally wounded hero.

During shooting on the Warner Bros. lot recently, Baker looked very much the part of the carefree actor with a hit series: He blithely pedaled a bicycle, a gift from his family, between his studio trailer and a cabin standing in for a witch’s house.

Asked to dissect the appeal of “The Mentalist,” however, Baker was far more cautious than flip.

“I don’t want to touch it. I’m really happy. Knock on wood. ... This day and age, it’s a very competitive world, the television world. If people want to turn the television on and watch ‘The Mentalist,’ then I’m very, very happy.”

So are his wife, actress Rebecca Rigg, and teenage daughter, he added, who were the first to tell him “The Mentalist” had a shot. The Australian-born Baker, 39, also has two sons.

For his part, Heller is glad to heap praise on Baker for the show’s out-of-the-gate top 10 ratings performance, with weekly audiences of about 16 million.

“He’s a genuine TV star and we were very lucky to get him. Especially in tough times, he has the kind of positive spirit and sense of life that appeals to people,” Heller said, adding, “I think the camaraderie and family feel of the ensemble works very nicely. But beyond that, it’s a mystery.”

Other shows incorporate supernatural elements, whether real or fraudulent — “The Ghost Whisperer,” “Medium” or “Psychic.” But “The Mentalist” is different.

“This show probably draws more parallels to ‘Columbo’ than to series with an otherworldly tinge, Baker said. “My character just has a different way of looking at things. He looks at things outside of the box.”

Baker notes that “a mentalist doesn’t have powers. A psychic does. A mentalist has power to suggest ideas to someone,” akin to a professional magician like Criss Angel.

In contrast to forensics-heavy shows such as “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation,” Baker welcomes the fact that the mind, rather than the microscope, is his character’s weapon of choice.

“It brings the crime-solving back into the fabric of human nature, so it’s prescience in the sense those old shows were. It’s more about reading someone. As an audience member you can sit there and meet all the potential suspects ... so the audience gets involved in the show.”

2008, The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.

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