CBS has found ratings success with aggressive Jerry Bruckheimer procedurals (the CSI franchise), military series (NCIS, The Unit) and guy-centric comedies (Two and a Half Men, Rules of Engagement). So it shouldn’t be surprising that most of the network’s new fall shows put men front and center. But as much as some of us would like to think otherwise, we’re not all brilliant crime solvers, tough guys or quip-quick womanizers. Some diversity, please?
And yet the show with the most achingly traditional set-up — The Mentalist — is one of the few of the new fall season that I could easily see myself returning to. It stars Simon Baker, known primarily in American homes from the CBS series The Guardian, on which he played a hotshot corporate lawyer forced to do community service advocating for troubled children. With kids now safely eradicated from the metropolis of prime time — banished to the sunny burgs of Nickelodeon and the Disney Channel — it seems that our TVs have been overtaken by a rampant broadcast-to-cablewide murder wave that only the umpteenth procedural apparently can address.
On this new one, Baker plays a so-called “independent consultant” named Patrick Jane, who works with the California Bureau of Investigation, helping to close cases with his unmatched powers of observation. What gives his Holmes-ian display of behavior assessment a distinctly American snake- oil-salesman edge is that Jane was once a celebrity psychic, who now freely admits he was just a really perceptive fake. No, he can’t talk to the dead, but he’s certainly got you sized up. He can tell you don’t trust your husband, or are lying, or had a football coach for a dad, or want to shag your co-worker. And he’ll tell you he can tell. Frankly, he’d be a frickin’ pill — the therapist friend who won’t stop shrinking you — if he weren’t, well, Simon Baker, all twinkly-eyed and open-collared male-model looks, with a quick-draw smile that belies the fact he’s clearly got boundary issues. (At the well-appointed estate where a family’s teenage daughter has been found dead, Jane strolls into the kitchen unsupervised to check out the fridge photos and … is he making a sandwich?)
On the surface, The Mentalist doesn’t exactly cover new ground. USA Network has its own fraud clairvoyant aiding the cops, but Psych plays like screwball-comedy froth more than mystery, and on NBC’s underrated horror show Medium, Patricia Arquette’s character really does have paranormal juju, but it terrifyingly obscures the truth. What sells The Mentalist aren’t the standard-operating-procedure crime-show features — there’s always (yawn) a team of detectives, and naturally (groan) a recurring, at-large serial killer — but the promise of a master at paying attention pitted against a criminal hiding in plain sight.
In the first episode’s double-murder story line, the fun is in watching Baker use sleight of hand, an eyeball inventory of a room and gentle conversational nudging of a suspect toward a red herring as he ferrets out his target. In the smallest of ways it reminds me of Columbo, that ’70s show in which a distracted hobo clown psychologically egged murderers into dismantling their own supposedly perfect crimes. Now if only The Mentalist would take a crucial cue from that legendary detective series and reveal the culprit early on, saving the suspense for the cat- and-mouse of mano-a-suspect exchanges. Because as much as Baker’s suavely sly version of a gotcha artist is a welcome addition, thanks to a few not-so-hidden laws of character-actor placement, you’ll guess the pilot scenario’s killer before anybody else. That’s because after absorbing endless hours of whodunit television, we viewers should be able to claim some of our own powers of genre perception.
Little observation is required, meanwhile, in determining that the new sitcom Gary Unmarried is pretty much business as usual, introducing us to a dude of simple pleasures. He has a house-painting business with likable-enough employees, two kids he doesn’t entirely get, a prickly relationship with his ex-wife and a hot new girlfriend. Comedian Jay Mohr is Gary, looking stockier and more emotionally lost than the alpha-male movie producer he aggressively played 10 years ago on the short-lived cult sitcom Action. But time has helped Mohr imbue his divorced-dad wisecracks with the right kind of slipping-into-middle-age sting. I especially enjoyed Mohr’s befuddled line reading when confronted by the fact that most of his 14-year-old son’s experience with kid interaction comes from an online society: “We didn’t have anything like that when I was a kid. We had … outside.”
Also, it’s probably good that because monogamy-inclined Gary’s new squeeze, Vanessa, is a single mom, and the actress who plays her, Jaime King, is a series regular, we won’t get the queasy bimbos-around-kids jokes that make Two and a Half Men feel so hopelessly unclean. And, hey, there’s reliably funny Ed Begley Jr. as ex-wife Allison’s new fiancé, who because this is wacky sitcomland is also their former marriage counselor. Only the usually appealing Paula Marshall, who keeps rising phoenixlike from countless failed shows (Cupid, Cursed, Snoops, Out of Practice), seems to have resorted to one-liner autopilot, but that could be creator-writer Ed Yeager not figuring out yet who she is beyond the stereotypically judgmental, controlling former wife. There’s time to fix that, though. I guess I’m saying that there are signposts that prevent me from writing this one off. The funniest traditional sitcom on TV right now is CBS’s own The New Adventures of Old Christine — the network’s lone female-oriented comedy — and if Gary Unmarried could tap into that well of honestly clumsy second-life insanity from the guy’s perspective without resorting to men-are-from-Earth/women-are-from-space humor, they could be on to something.
Aguy in a perpetual state of screw-up is at the center of CBS’s new comedy, and that’s Worst Week, an embarrassment farce that’s an American remake of a British comedy called Worst Week of My Life. It stars Kyle Bornheimer (Jericho) as well-meaning Sam, who has an adoring pregnant girlfriend, Melanie (Erinn Hayes), with uptight parents, Dick and Angela (Kurtwood Smith and Nancy Lenehan), who in the pilot endure the kind of domino-tipping catastrophe at the hands of their daughter’s boyfriend that might make you laugh, or might make you curl into a ball, eyes avoiding the screen, moaning in empathetic pain. I probably thought too much about how the various disasters could be avoided — the vomiting co-worker, the ruined turkey, the misunderstood undertaker — to really enjoy the show, even though it’s obviously well-made and Bornheimer has a flinty wit that prevents him from being just another Ben Stiller–ish sap. I’ve long had a weakness for mishap farce, from Laurel and Hardy to the Peter Sellers film The Party and through to the current vogue for foot-in-mouth disease that exemplifies The Office and Curb Your Enthusiasm. But if I’m being truthful, the original British version of this series was funnier. It had a fractured elegance, pitched beautifully so that star Ben Miller’s fiascoes were funnier in the 100-meter stares they provoked from his victims. It was crumbling-Empire comedy at heart. I guess that makes CBS’s more hysterically pitched redo a metaphor for the stumblebum administration we’ve endured for eight years. Maybe if it’s a hit, it’ll act as a disaster-preparedness course for fuck-up-weary Americans. So when Angela reveals a painting of her beloved husband that she’s secretly commissioned by a renowned presidential portraitist, well-trained viewers’ minds will know that a Sam-generated fire is in its future.
THE MENTALIST | CBS | Tuesdays, 9 p.m.
GARY UNMARRIED | CBS | Wednesdays, 8:30 p.m.
WORST WEEK | CBS | Mondays, 9:30 p.m.