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PRIME-TIME TV

'The Mentalist' and Simon Baker find a hit

March 22, 2009|Greg Braxton

Simon Baker is having a rough time. He's battling a stubborn cold, and the pressures of a long shooting day on the Warner Bros. lot are taking their toll. But Baker, the star of CBS' "The Mentalist," still has a smile and twinkle in his eyes. That's how it is when you're the face of the season's only breakout hit at a time when few believed it possible for a major network to deliver a sizable weekly audience for a new scripted program.

"Everything is good right now, really good," said Baker, apologizing for his cough and the rasp in his voice. "Every TV show is a crapshoot, really. But every once in a while, a show gets anointed as 'the show.' And at the moment, we are it."

Even up against Fox's formidable "American Idol," which has earned the nickname "Death Star" for obliterating the competition, "The Mentalist" has emerged as the most popular -- and most unlikely -- hit of the network TV season.

An aggressively unhip show with no built-in "water cooler" factor, "The Mentalist" might try the patience of the most seasoned psychic as to why it has triumphed over more edgy, star-driven fare. The success of the drama, which follows in the tradition of "The Rockford Files," "Magnum P.I." and "Columbo," where the quirky main character solves crimes with ingenuity and more than a little humor, might come down to the adage that everything old is new again.

Not only has it outdistanced its more high-profile newcomer competition such as Fox's "Fringe," the CW's "90210" and NBC's "My Own Worst Enemy," the Tuesday night show has accomplished the rarest of feats: being a breakout scripted hit on network TV that started strong out of the gate. Only "Desperate Housewives," "Lost" and the fading "Heroes" have displayed similar momentum in the last several years.

The show, in which the native Australian plays a onetime psychic turned crime investigator, regularly lands in the top 10 of the week's most-watched shows. Its first-run episodes average almost 19 million viewers per week, while even repeats bring in more than 14 million, according to Nielsen.

"This show has clearly landed above the fray of other new entries," said Jason Mittell, an associate professor of film and media culture at Middlebury College in Vermont. "It has succeeded mostly on the backs of other CBS procedurals that are popular with older viewers. It's less about innovation than the repetition of the formula -- with a difference."

Baker has his own theory. "It's a procedural, but it's not defined by its procedural nature. It has a sly wit about it. There's earnest moments, but it doesn't take itself too seriously."

While other major networks have seen viewership decline this season, CBS alone can boast an audience increase -- in no small part due to "The Mentalist." Bouyed by the show's strong ratings, CBS is the clear No. 1 network for total viewers. NBC and ABC have no new hits, and almost all of the midseason scripted entries have already failed.

Like many of the network's top programs, the show is essentially a crime drama, but one that deviates in tone from its rather grim and gruesome science-heavy cousins like "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation" and "Criminal Minds." "The Mentalist" is built upon the quick wit and sharp intellect of its hero, who wields his uncanny powers of observation like a scalpel.

"It's in the ballpark of our other shows, but it's slightly offbeat," said Nina Tassler, president of CBS Entertainment. "The humor played well. We certainly knew we were on the right track. We looked at all the elements, then spread a bit of pixie dust on it."

Peter Roth, head of Warner Bros. Television, which produces the show, said series creator Bruno Heller pitched the show this way: "What if Sherlock Holmes and Angelina Jolie had a baby and he grew up?"

Like other CBS procedurals, "The Mentalist" has a heavy female following -- almost 60% of its audience is female and 18 or older, says Nielsen.

On its face, the show's widespread appeal might even be a mystery to Baker's character, Patrick Jane. The show lacks the staples of many other crime dramas -- among them, a cool soundtrack, edgy fashions and fresh young stars.

But if Jane looked in the mirror, he might be able to solve much of the puzzle. Tassler, Roth and other forces behind the series say Baker's GQ-ready looks and easygoing charm are crucial. Critics have given the series largely favorable notices, and many single out Baker's performance. For an actor who has had plenty of ups and downs, the role fits Baker like one of his vests -- easy and relaxed.

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