"Mentalist," "Lie to Me": The truth hurts

Simon Baker and Tim Roth are charismatic and coy as TV mind readers, but the cheese is still spread a little thick

Published November 29, 2009 2:01AM (EST)

Simon Baker from "The Mentalist" and Tim Roth from "Lie to Me"
Simon Baker from "The Mentalist" and Tim Roth from "Lie to Me"

No one wants to hear the truth. We all talk a good game about honesty, but really, we don't want to know. We lament how full of shit most people are, but try the truth on for size and see how fast your friends, family and former lovers cringe and scatter.

We can't handle the truth, none of us can. If you mistake that bit of truth for an insult, that says something about your (limited) tolerance for acknowledging your (many, obvious) flaws.

But like a good joke, the truth depends on tone. If you're at all uncomfortable with flatly stating the facts, you're bound to confuse and scare people. When spoken by the jittery, the needy, the confused and the bitter, the truth is encountered as a ploy, a blunt weapon or a cry for help. Yet with a confident, self-possessed delivery, the truth sounds more like a bit of helpful information, paired with an unexpected invitation to cast aside pretense and speak from the soul.

With a relaxed tone and a little eye contact, the truth can be daring, even intoxicating. Hmm, your words are strangely factual and accurate. Are you trying to flirt with me? Is that the truth in your pocket, or are you just happy to see me?

Truthiness becomes him

Just look at dashing Simon Baker of "The Mentalist" (10 p.m. Thursdays). Imagine having that hair, those eyes, that smile, and that calm, confident tone as you explain everyone around you to themselves. Armed with such gifts, I'd be tempted to lead a small nation to war.

I bet it's tough to resist the urge to use your supernatural good looks and otherworldly charm for evil instead of good. Baker seems to pull it off -- unless you consider appearing on a CBS procedural drama a crime (which many do).

But while the other CBS procedurals mill about, trying to impress each other by donning a see-through slip and talking to dead people ("The Ghost Whisperer"), solving bizarre crimes involving furries and syrup of ipecac ("CSI"), or just strutting around in Navy dress uniforms, clearing their throats and clenching their strong jaws ("NCIS"), "The Mentalist" relies almost entirely on Baker's magnetism -- which might explain why gullible old ladies and young people alike are so smitten with the show. Last week it won the highest ratings in a crowded Thursday night lineup, and TNT just bought its syndication rights.

Now, let's just be honest. Procedural dramas are the dog-eared bestselling mystery paperbacks of the TV lineup, and personally, I've never been a huge fan of those sorts of books. Staying tuned to see the next string of clues enticingly unveiled feels about as cheap as getting drawn into a striptease just because the girl onstage takes a very, very long time to pull off her long white gloves.

Nonetheless, "The Mentalist" is at least reasonably snappy, compared to some of its dimwitted, unrealistic procedural brethren. The cast is stronger than most, from Robin Tunney as detective Lisbon, to (until last week) Gregory Itzin as Lisbon and Baker's boss, agent Virgil Minelli. (Itzin is the Nixon look-alike who also plays Very, Very Bad President Charles Logan on "24.") The story lines sometimes stretch credulity: In one episode, Lisbon is suspected of killing a pedophile. In another, the nanny did it! But instead of wandering around with terrible one-liners stolen from Steven Seagal movies, the dialogue is moderately thoughtful.

And "The Mentalist" has flair. One might even say that this show has gratuitous flair. Take this exchange between soon-to-retire agent Minelli and a cheesy reporter in the wake of a mysterious attack that left three detectives dead and one in critical condition.

Agent Minelli: We will not rest until we bring the perpetrator to justice.

News reporter: Special agent Minelli, our condolences. Would you describe your feelings at this terrible time?

Agent Minelli: Wow. Meredith, that's … You know, for eight years I've put up with the idiotic questions of the media, and I've never said squat. But today, I must tell you, Meredith, you've really set a new standard in horse's assery. You people have no concept of what we do. We go into dark, horrible places, alone and afraid, and we do it with no money, broken-down vehicles, computers that have more viruses than a $10 whore. How? Good people. And I lost three good people today, and a fourth who's in critical condition, and you ask me how I'm feeling? I'm feeling sad, you moron. Any other questions?

This is the point where we sink our teeth into "The Mentalist's" cheese-filled crust: When the show's writers have an opportunity to take an ordinary scene and amp up the stakes with melodramatic outbursts, emotional manipulation and egotistical grandstanding, they just can't resist. But then, any show that gives its disturbingly smooth lead character, Patrick Jane (Baker), the ability to peer straight into men's souls in an instant isn't exactly aiming for subtlety. And that's not to mention the show's continual focus on Jane's tragic back story, which involves the brutal murder of his wife and daughter at the hands of a serial killer named Red John. Red John left a big not-so-smiley face on the wall in blood for Jane to find -- just like the Manson murders, only creepier, dude!

The cheese started oozing out of control last week when, right after a few second-season regulars are brutally murdered and a fourth, CBI agent Sam Bosco (Terry Kinney), lands in the hospital, right after Minelli breaks character and refers to morons and horse's assery and $10 whores at a press conference (yes, yes, we get it -- he's been pushed to the brink!), Jane tries to unplug Bosco's morphine drip so Bosco can tell Jane his latest lead on Red John before he dies. (Yes, Red John is behind this!)

Then we discover that Rebecca, Bosco's frumpy assistant, was the one who gunned down Bosco's men and injured Bosco, and she was … acting out of love for Red John! In that same old repeat of "Silence of the Lambs" we've been seeing for the past trillion years, a chained Rebecca taunts Jane. "Until your wife and your daughter were killed, you were blind, weren't you? You were living an illusion. Red John opened your eyes, and now you see the world for what it truly is."

Jane looks shocked and confused. Hmm. I like Jane better when he's playful and slightly condescending. "I got rid of Bosco and his team so that you could have the case back," Rebecca adds. "Red John misses you. And it's what you wanted, too, isn't it?"

Jane feels guilty. Agent Minelli packs up and takes off. Boy, is he menacing! Is Agent Minelli Red John? And now here's Lisbon telling Bosco, who's sitting up and talking like he's merely spending the afternoon at a day spa, that the doctors think he's going to die. Since he's on his deathbed, Bosco figures he'll complete the cliché and tell Lisbon that he loves her. Lisbon tearily tells Bosco she loves him, too. (There's no way she really loves him, right? But he's about to die and ratings are skyrocketing, so what the hell?)

Suddenly Bosco is short of breath! Is he allergic to the full-body seaweed wrap? Now he can only talk in a whisper … he's fading fast! He asks to see Jane! He whispers something in Jane's ear. Something about Lisbon? Red John? That's it, he's gone! Bosco dies in Patrick Jane's arms, probably whispering about Red John!

Don't you ever wonder about people on TV who don't mention their parents or wife or kids in their dying moments, but instead gasp out something crucial about a mysterious unsolved crime or about our handsome and fearless lead character and his concerns and fears? How sad, that a person could view their own life as a poignant subplot in someone else's epic story.

In short, on Thursday, "The Mentalist" veered from gratuitous flair to gratuitous gratuitousness. Fans of the show proclaimed it one of the best episodes ever, and maybe that's understandable, since the storytelling on this show isn't typically all that complex or intriguing. But if that cavalcade of sensationalistic clichés is the best "The Mentalist" has to offer? Well, why not just flip over to "CSI: Miami" and watch Horatio Caine (David Caruso) don mirrored sunglasses and growl into the sepia-toned middle distance?

Oh, yeah. David Caruso doesn't have the charm to lead a small village into mild hand-to-hand combat.

Even so, if Red John is some central narrative device on "The Mentalist," doesn't that suggest that Jane will be hot on his trail forever? That's like a five-year striptease where the pretty lady takes three months to peel off her parka. Simon Baker is good, but he's not that good.

Secrets and lies

Tim Roth is almost that good. Cal Lightman (Roth), the highly paid truffle pig of lies at the center of "Lie to Me" (9 p.m. Mondays), is also a more dynamically written, complicated, subtle character than Patrick Jane. Yes, he had some tough times as a criminal and did some shit in Bosnia and who knows what else, really? But being stalked by a serial killer who paints on the walls in blood? Even these writers, who have to keep the bloodthirsty hounds at Fox satisfied, have more restraint than that.

That said, "Lie to Me" is all about finding some entry point into the juiciest, most suspenseful search for truthiness possible. Instead of solving crimes week after week, Lightman bounces around from sniffing out a man's biological parents to getting to the bottom of a case of high school bullying to playing high-stakes poker with a roomful of glowering thugs. If this show indulges in gratuitous flair, it's in the realm of playful subplots: Lightman stops by a singles mixer, hits on a recent divorcee in order to report back to her ex on whether she cheated during their marriage, and hurls a few smooth lines about room service and warm honey at an uninterested hottie along the way. Realistically, the hottie looks unimpressed before Tim Roth looks her right in the eye and delivers his lines with casual confidence. Hmm, your words are bold, yet oddly accurate. Take my pants off, her face seems to say.

But naturally, instead of hopping into the sack with her, Lightman pines for his partner Gillian Foster (Kelli Williams). After all, if Lightman were in the lie-detecting business for the cheap thrills, he'd be a pro poker player or a CIA operative. But Lightman wants to help people.

Not that that makes him boring. On the contrary, Lightman's lines always feel spontaneous and unexpected, thanks in no small part to Roth's jaunty approach to the role. The earnestness of his team provides a nice foil for his mirthful quips.

"We're a team, and you risked your life without letting us help you," Foster tells Lightman during a staff intervention aimed at getting Lightman to stop pulling one-man high-wire acts without a net. Lightman isn't willing to make a single concession, or even discuss it.

Reynolds: Where does that leave us?

Lightman: That leaves you all fired.

Torres: You've gotta be kidding! I didn't even want to do this intervention.

Lightman: Just you then, just you are fired, for having no spine!

Torres: I don't believe this.

Lightman: Good, because I'm lying. Oh, did your emotions get in the way? You should really work on that.

Shawn Ryan, creator of "The Shield," joined the staff of "Lie to Me" in its second season, apparently to pump a little action into the story lines, and since then things have gotten a little more flashy and fast-paced than before: Lightman is pulled into a criminal circle by his double-dealing best buddy! Lightman is held hostage by a maniac with a gun! Lightman chokes a lady with his bare hands, Jack Bauer-style!

Last week may have been the splashiest but also the least interesting episode of the season: Lightman flies to Afghanistan to interrogate a suspected American member of the Taliban in order to determine where two Marines are being held hostage. There's an extended macho standoff with the mysterious man who turns out to be a discarded low-level spy for the U.S. government. The man martyrs himself on a whim, Lightman flies to Iowa City to inform the man's parents of his role (since the U.S. government won't do it!), then he flies back to D.C. in time to catch the aftermath of the office Christmas party, which was set to occur three days after he left. Maybe that timeline is possible if you're flying on some Air Force jet, maybe it's not, but the whole plot was over the top, like a Tom Clancy novel miniaturized to fit one hour of broadcast time.

But then, blaming procedurals for their Bruckheimerian embellishments is like blaming bestsellers for their shiny covers and their shouting, 50-point typefaces. Besides, procedurals have to combine so many different elements to keep audiences hooked these days: Pumping out fresh, dynamic plotlines that still satisfy, building up the suspense, exploring season-long narrative arcs and revealing new layers about the lead characters. Is it any wonder producers occasionally turn to falling bombs, violent interrogation, driving beats, unexpected murders, deathbed confessionals and dry ice machines?

Playing "House" isn't exactly easy, either. It's no small feat to make the quirks and odd tics of blustery, half-crazy, egocentric know-it-alls fresh and appealing. We've seen this shtick before, and we're quick to grow weary of its particular folds: Nutjob expert looks unsuspecting bystander in the eye, sees something interesting, speaks openly about it, causing blushing, stuttering confusion. To see how many times this scene plays out on television, you'd think that TV dramas were written by a gaggle of smart but misunderstood individuals who long to find someone in the world who's wise enough to see right through them and brash enough to tell them what they see.

Don't worry, fair TV writer. I can see right through to your soul: You want a nap, some unconditional love and a glazed doughnut the size of your head. Yes, behind our small talk and our bullshit and our lies, we're all exactly the same! 

By Heather Havrilesky

Heather Havrilesky is a regular contributor to the New York Times Magazine, The Awl and Bookforum, and is the author of the memoir "Disaster Preparedness." You can also follow her on Twitter at @hhavrilesky.

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