By: Aleks Chan
It been established – both ratings-wise and in the press – that CBS’s THE MENTALIST is the season’s only true hit. Starring Simon Baker as a former TV psychic who helps nab murderers for the California Bureau of Investigation (CBS has a crafty knack for surrounding its procedurals around important-sounding government agencies no one has ever heard of), it plays up what BONES has been doing for awhile now, but in a tasty, poppable way, so that you have no reason to object to watching it while it’s on, but will completely forget after the fact.
Whatever recreational drug CBS has been spoon-feeding its viewers, it has become especially popular during a time when viewers want escapism they don’t have to think about. It’s TV at its trendiest: when real world problems get hairier, it gets easier. Which is fine – THE MENTALIST is the kind of breezy, set-it-and-forget-it programming that makes for a nice refresher after busying oneself over something as complicated and twisty as LOST. And that can be afforded by Simon Baker, who as Patrick Jane, reads people with such a palpable sense of glee, that you can forgive just how absurd the show’s initial premise is (his psychic facade ended after the murderer he was pretending to profile killed his family).
LIE TO ME, Fox’s HOUSE-ian approach to the forget-me-later pill, is far more cynical by comparison: also starring a cantankerous Brit (Tim Roth, whom I’d love to see in a scowl-off with Hugh Laurie), it follows a team of consultants who are trained in the science of faces — that is, they can read peoples’ faces to tell whether or not they’re lying, scared, thrilled, or whatever emotion (or lack of emotion) the script calls for.
And every episode is chockfull of facial-tic tidbits: pursed lips indicate lying; genuine smiles wrinkle the eyes. And that’s probably why so many people watch it – it invites viewers to play along, to catch the killer in a lie with the same virtuoso excitement. But really, its all a crutch: LIE TO ME is so painstakingly played out (father-daughter issues, I’m-a-professional-lie-detector-but-can’t-see-my-husband-lying-to-my-face issues) that if it weren’t for the aforementioned play at home game, it would’ve been canceled already.
CASTLE, meanwhile, while in the same vein as THE MENTALIST and LIE TO ME, is a different kind of drug: its so intoxicatingly bland that you could forget you’re watching it halfway through an episode. About bestselling mystery writer Rick Castle (Nathan Fillion), who, suffering from a serious case of writer’s block after killing off his book series’ hero, begins shadowing detective Kate Beckett (Stana Katic) as research for his next book, with her being the inspiration.
It’s part post-coital MOONLIGHTING, part MURDER, SHE WROTE, especially with the pilot: it opens on a recreated version of one of the murders depicted in Castle’s books, his books also being what brings the two together (she’s a closer super-fan, he’s a boffo charmer). The cases in all three of these shows are completely irrelevant, and are never, ever difficult. Like gun, gunshot wound, this man was shot! easy. So what’s supposed to draw us in are the characters, and in CASTLE’s case it doesn’t, because the chemistry between its stars is completely fabricated. They’re written to be attracted to each other, but there isn’t an undercurrent of tension.
And poor Nathan Fillion. The guy’s a great actor who just can’t get the roles he deserves. He’s better than the source material, able to convincingly play Castle as ladies’ man, doting dad, and playfully nudging partner. Katic does alright, but she has the unfortunate sense to seem exotically interesting, but is actually very boring.
It all feels too much like the franchise mystery novels Patterson and Grisham crank out each year (Patterson in fact has a cameo appearance in the pilot): after you’ve read one, you’ve read ‘em all. CASTLE isn’t the poppable TV that viewers of THE MENTALIST or even LIE TO ME would enjoy – it doesn’t have any flavor.
The Mentalist airs Tuesdays at 9 p.m. (est) on CBS
Lie to Me moves to Wednesdays at 8 p.m. (est) this week on Fox
Castle premieres today and airs Mondays at 10 p.m. (est) on ABC