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Welcome once again to our annual "first look" at the broadcast networks' offerings for the 2008-2009 season. Each day we'll walk you through one of the new series set to premiere next season and go over our initial impressions after viewing the pilot - or in this new post-strike/straight-to-series world, reading the pilot script. We'll start with the ones that were actually filmed and move on to the others in the coming weeks.
With that in mind, it's even more important to remember that a lot can change from what's being screened right now - recasting, reshooting, etc. - but we still want to give you a heads up on what you should (and shouldn't) keep on your radar in the coming months. Plus: as an added bonus, we've got a backlog of passed over pilots - some from this season, some from last season - we'll be tackling as well. So enough of our rambling, on with the show!
THE MENTALIST (CBS)
(written by Bruno Heller; directed by David Nutter; TRT: 47:13)
The network's description: "THE MENTALIST stars Golden Globe Award nominee Simon Baker ("The Devil Wears Prada") as Patrick Jane, a detective and independent consultant with the California Bureau of Investigation (CBI), who has a remarkable track record for solving serious crimes by using his razor sharp skills of observation. Within the Bureau, Jane is notorious for his blatant lack of protocol and his semi-celebrity past as a psychic medium, whose paranormal abilities he now admits he feigned. Jane's role in cracking a series of tough high-profile cases is greatly valued by his fellow agents. However, no-nonsense Senior Agent Teresa Lisbon (Robin Tunney, "Prison Break") openly resists having Jane in her unit and alternates between reluctantly acknowledging Jane's usefulness and blasting him for his theatrics, narcissism and dangerous lack of boundaries. Lisbon's team includes agents Kimball Cho (Tim Kang, "Rambo"), Wayne Rigsby (Owain Yeoman, "The Nine"), and rookie member Grace Van Pelt (Amanda Righetti, "The O.C."), who all think Jane's a loose cannon but admire his charm and knack for clearing cases. Bruno Heller (creator of "Rome") is creator/executive producer, and Emmy Award winner David Nutter ("Band of Brothers") is the executive producer for Warner Bros. Television."
What did they leave out: Shaun Toub had been cast as KJ Patel, Lisbon's supervisor, however his scenes were either cut or not filmed in the version I saw.
The plot in a nutshell: Patrick Jane (Simon Baker) has ditched his D-list celebrity status as a talk show psychic in favor of working as a consultant for the California Bureau of Investigation. There he uses his "Psych"-esque abilities (minus the extreme close-ups when he notices something) to assist the by-the-book Agent Teresa Lisbon (Robin Tunney) and her team, whether she wants his help or not. The teaser then concerns itself with a husband and wife (Steven Culp, Gail O'Grady) whose daughter has gone missing and all fingers are pointing at the neighborhood's troubled teen. All Jane needs however is quick stroll around their house to figure out the husband actually did it, a fact he's more than pleased with himself about. Said revelation nevertheless causes a surprising result, the first of many indications that this isn't going to be your typical procedural. Two weeks later, Jane - suspended due to the aforementioned incident - once again turns up uninvited to lend a hand on Lisbon's newest case - a golf pro's (Jeffrey Nordling) wife and her doctor have been murdered in Palm Springs. The case poses a particular interest for Jane as evidence the famed "Red John" serial killer has turned up at the scene (a smiley face drawn with the victim's hand). It seems that Jane has a frightening connection to "Red John," one which ultimately made him turn his back on the talk show circuit and his previously frivolous ways. A series of flashbacks trace said connection while Jane, Lisbon and company try to solve the pair's murder. Was it the golf pro, who was having an affair; his brother (Tim Guinee), who was sleeping with his brother's wife; or the doctor's business partner (Zeljko Ivanek), who was embezzling money? Or has "Red John" really returned? The answer gives us a unique portrait of who Patrick Jane is - driven but overtired, hopeful but broken, smart but terrified. Along the way we meet the rest of Lisbon's crew - Wayne Rigsby (Owain Yeoman), the resident meathead; Kimball Cho (Tim Kang), the resident dry wit; and Grace Van Pelt (Amanda Righetti), the resident newbie - all of whom emerge as real characters in lieu of your standard "team" cutouts.
What works: There's a mix of humor and somberness at work here that hasn't been seen on television since the early days of "Monk." What separates this show from the pack however is how each episode is just one long con by Jane as he follows up his own leads and motives, leaving the rest of the team - and we the audience for the most part - in the dark. (Even Jane's backstory is stacked in such a way that all it takes is one simple image to fill in the gaps to heartbreaking effect.) It's a clever twist on the typical "this is how/why he did it" closing scene as in addition to the usual summary, there's the added bonus of discovering how Jane knew what he knew. Leading the charge is the never-been-better Simon Baker, who brings a relaxed charm to the proceedings that really makes the show a genuine pleasure to watch. Baker also gets a surprisingly filled out supporting cast, each of which both loathes and is intrigued by his character. And it works both ways too - Baker's Jane is both annoyed by everyone's naivety as well as intrigued by their conviction, especially in the case of Amanda Righetti's Grace Van Pelt, whose devout religious background disarms him. It's best summarized in the team's pitch-perfect dinner scene where Jane calls them out on their predictableness while they point out how he relies on the same old tricks and shtick, all set against the background of a discussion about whether there's anything beyond this life. Pretty cool stuff. And did I mention "The Mentalist" features the saddest, creepiest and most defining closing moments of a pilot since Jim Profit climbed into a cardboard box at the end of FOX's "Profit?"
What doesn't: I have no complaints or concerns. David Nutter has without a doubt continued his Joe DiMaggio-esque pilot streak for good reason.
The bottom line: Out of all the filmed pilots this is easily my favorite just for the simple fact it just looks, feels and plays wonderfully.