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Woo in Review: THE MENTALIST and CRIMINAL MINDS PDF Print E-mail
Swift
Written by Alison Smith   

mentalistThe pilot of The Mentalist (CBS) opens with a smarmy-looking man who resembles a Ken doll approaching a press conference outside a residence where parents are thanking police and volunteers for searching for their missing teenage daughter and utterly failing (as she has just been found dead). My first thought was "Who thanks police for their help while their dead daughter is being gurneyed off to the morgue like three feet away?" But that is neither here nor there for a review – I just accepted that the show wasn't going to be about realistic displays of emotion, and that they were trying to jam about a dozen plot elements into ten seconds.

The Ken doll man then heads off into the parents' house to steal food from their kitchen. The Ken doll is our hero, Patrick Jane, ex-fake psychic and current consultant for the California Bureau of Investigation, where he uses his skills in mentalism to solve crimes. Sort of like if Sylvia Browne became talented at deductive reasoning, reformed, and morphed into Sherlock Holmes.


We see the world through Jane's eyes, which are constantly seeking the truth behind the crimes he investigates, and then shoving it down our throats as though the viewers of this show are children that need to be taken by the hand and led through a plot so simple it makes
CSI look like Anna Karenina.

For instance, while stealing food from the kitchen, Jane notices a few things (and therefore so does the camera). There are a variety of teas in the pantry, and they all have names like "Serenity" and "Tranquility." The photos on the refrigerator of the parents are emotionless, while for some reason there is a strip of photos of the daughter and the father from one of those carnival photo booths where she is sitting in his lap. And not looking happy about it. The kitchen is clean and utilitarian.

While Jane is stealing food from the kitchen, the mother enters and he makes her a cup of tea as well. They chat, and Jane discovers that the mother suspects the father of killing the daughter, even though police think it was a neighbor boy. Why? Because the father was molesting the daughter. Of course, Jane knew this already because he looked at the photos and is not a mindless twit. The California Bureau of Investigation's detectives are apparently all idiots, because really, is it possible no one else came to that conclusion?

Jane convinces the mother that with a "mother's instinct" and since "wives usually know when their husbands are lying," all she has to do is ask her husband if he is the killer. The husband enters, Jane asks, the husband lies, and the mother shoots her husband. Something like twenty detectives rush in to see what happened, and Jane says the utterly priceless line, "Honestly, this is not as bad as it looks." I could practically hear the rimshot echoing through the scene.

But it is that bad, isn't it? The killer is dead, the mother will have to stand trial. The daughter is dead, and yet Jane stands there, looking smug, with an annoying half-smile on his face. It isn't as though the true identity of the killer would've never come out, so all Jane did for the California Bureau of Investigation was ensure that they'd have to process a second crime scene.

The part I've described thus far is the first ten minutes of the pilot episode of the show.

So far, there have been five episodes of The Mentalist, and all are roughly the same type of crime show we've been watching for years, thanks to the nine thousand incarnations of
Law and Order. I've heard skeptics praise The Mentalist again and again, and yet I'm not sure why. The crimes so far have been typical of the genre, except they seem like detective fiction written by someone who doesn't know anything about investigations or law. And there's also the annoying fact that the main character has started to routinely use hypnosis to recover memories from victims.

I see why skeptics can appreciate The Mentalist to a degree – the main character used to make his living lying and pretending to be psychic and now says in nearly every episode "There are no psychics," but still – does that make it a good story? Is his character even believable? And the answer is no – not really. Not unless you make a caricature of a real mentalist. I mean, part of being a mentalist is throwing out a billion observations in the hopes that one sticks and you get a huge hit. But that's not exactly how one investigates crimes.

The Mentalist tries very hard to be quirky, in the same style as Monk or Psych, and if you like either of those shows you'll probably like this one, too.

However, there is another show that is often overlooked and has just as many skeptical elements, relies on psychology like The Mentalist, has realistic crime often based in historical crimes, cites statistics and literature, and manages to combine interesting characters with interesting plot – a difficult task in the realm of crime drama.

criminalmindsThe show is CBS' Criminal Minds, which follows the (fictional) investigations of the criminal profilers of the FBI's Behavioral Analysis Unit. You may not ever hear the characters utter anything as blatantly pro-skeptic as "There's no such thing as psychics," but the plots of the episodes are definitely rooted in skepticism starting with the very first famous quotation given in the pilot - "The belief in a supernatural source of evil is not necessary; men alone are quite capable of every wickedness." Joseph Conrad.

Where The Mentalist is quirky, Criminal Minds is dark. The BAU team often investigates the crimes of serial killers, searches for missing persons being held by the most twisted individuals imaginable, and follows a trail of clues that seems like murky water to the casual viewer rather than stuffing your mouth with refrigerator photos with implications so obvious it's a wonder that the cast of The Mentalist doesn't stare directly into the camera and say, "Well, duh."

For example, in the episode of Criminal Minds "The Big Game", the BAU investigates the murder of a couple following a Superbowl party. After reviewing records, the team realizes that about a week prior to the murder, a person walking their dog near the house reported a suspicious person. When police responded, they were unable to find the suspicious person that had been reported. At this point, logically, I would assume that the killer had staked out the house. But Criminal Minds was able to surprise me when the team decided that, in fact, the killer was the person who had been walking the dog – and had called police to gauge their response time.

In other words, Criminal Minds came up with a logical answer that wasn't the obvious one. I didn't feel spoonfed, just interested. Criminal Minds is, stylistically, like reading along with a Sherlock Holmes story while simultaneously trying to figure out the mystery yourself whereas The Mentalist is like reading a Sherlock Holmes story that has been rewritten to appeal to five year olds.

spencerreidAnd Criminal Minds has another element I love – the character Spencer Reid, a young FBI agent whose eidetic memory is a source of near-constant annoyance for his fellow agents, and yet is a rush of interesting facts for the viewer. Reid spends every episode rattling off statistics and details of historic crimes that are scarily accurate for a fictional television show.

The difference between Reid and Jane, though they have a similar massive compendium of knowledge, is that Jane's infallible logic makes him cocky, smug, and sort of annoying; whereas Reid is awkward, shy, and made out of depth rather than cardboard.

Not to say that Criminal Minds is a series of facts. It isn't. The crimes sometimes seem unbelievable – as they normally are in this genre. But in watching Criminal Minds, you'll get a larger dose of skepticism than a repetitive "There's no such thing as psychics" quote.

Seeing a show that takes a hard line with psychics is gratifying, and as a skeptic I support The Mentalist for the views it seems to represent. And after working a few kinks out, it might turn into a great show. It just isn't there yet. And until it gets there, I'll console myself with Criminal Minds.

THE MENTALIST: 3 out of 5 stars

CRIMINAL MINDS: 5 out of 5 stars

SKEPTICAL FURTHER READING:

The Full Facts Book of Cold Reading by Ian Rowland ()

Psychological Subtleties 2
by Banachek

The Works of Robert Ressler

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written by Jeff Wagg, November 09, 2008
Honestly, The Mentalist looks like Russell Johnson, "The Professor" from Gilligan's Island.
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written by Kathryn Prentice, November 10, 2008
Good stuff! I'm generally not a TV person, tho my husband is. If "Criminal Minds" comes on AFN at all, and at a reasonable hour, I'll check it out. Thanks for the referral! (Oh, and Mandy Patinkin is just awesome.)
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written by Jon Dunbar, November 12, 2008
In defence of The Mentalist, I only recall him using hypnosis once, and he later confronted the people he hypnotised with the fact that they weren't really under hypnosis.

What the show is letting us down with is the murder-a-week format. It would be far more interesting if the crimes themselves were more closely related to supernatural claims and debunking them.
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written by David Andersson, November 12, 2008
The Mentalist is like a modern MacGyver. He can do cold reading, count cards, seduce widows AND build amazing sandcastles. What's not to like?
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written by Eirik Larsson, November 12, 2008
The (over)acting in Criminal Minds is so poor I had to stop watch it, even though the plots were OK. I would say that the lead character in Mentalist is actually pretty good, but the plots as you pointed out were annoingly childish.
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written by Giles Varner, November 13, 2008
I like (marginally) the Mentalist. Jane is a bit 'smug' but...

After I read the review, I decided to give Criminal Minds another shot (I had only see 1 episode before).
What does the main character (Spencer Reed) do? Undergoes Hypnosis to recover suppressed memories. Ugh! Criminal Minds should be downgraded to 3 out of 5 stars if you are going to use the same criteria as you did for The Mentalist.
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written by David Andersson, November 13, 2008
I agree with Jon Dunbar. I've seen all episodes of The Mentalist so far, and even though the review states that the lead character "routinely use hypnosis to recover memories", I don't recall him doing it even once. I may be wrong, of course. Sloppy reviewing?
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A better review
written by William Wallace, November 13, 2008
I'm glad to see that Alison Smith could step off of her very high horse long enough to give us an actual unbiased review. However, TV reviews are still a total waste of time. JREF shouldn't be hosting TV show reviews when there are so many other sites that already host reviews which are better and done by experienced critics. "Woo in Review" would be a decent idea if put on its own domain but doesn't belong on the webpage of an "educational" foundation.
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It's... entertainment!
written by Radwaste, November 13, 2008
Well, whatever value you get from the drama on the screen, you have to remember it's a play. A show. And Criminal Minds' cops, just like those on nearly every other cop show, would get killed immediately if they handled firearms and used the "tactics" you see on the screen.

Everything has to be explained to the audience - everything. Even when there's no talking going on. And so the broad brush stays out.
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written by Alison Smith, November 13, 2008
Giles - You can imagine my annoyance (and amusement) when, after posting this review, the *very next* episode of Criminal Minds used hypnosis to recover memories!

However, I'm going to have to stand by the review of both The Mentalist and Criminal Minds. We're talking about one episode of Criminal Minds that used a sucky plot element, and not every episode can be gold.

And even though I was mildly irritated at the hypnosis element, at the same time I was pretty happy with how it was presented. The therapist in the episode warned that memories from such a young age are unreliable in the first place, that memories recovered in that manner could not be used in court as evidence, and that knowing information about the case in advance would make the subject prone to confabulation.

Of course, all the memories turned out to be accurate, but hey. I'm willing to give a little.

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written by jay b spry, November 13, 2008
I must agree with William Wallace. Of course this is not my web site and I'm certainly free to go elsewhere. But the SWIFT as written by Randi was old school: grumpy, cantankerous and merciless on frauds and those who profit from them. Its lack of media flash was one of the appealing things about it.
I stopped watching fictional TV shows decades ago and I just couldn't care less what the script writers in West LA think about anything at all. The difference between the best and the worst of these shows is negligible, and I'd rather see info on the real-life charlatans who are prowling the streets.
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Randi's still here...
written by Jeff Wagg, November 13, 2008
Hey, Randi's still writing for Swift, same as ever. I have three articles coming from him in the next few days.
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fictional TV shows
written by Jon Dunbar, November 13, 2008
Of course fiction affects the real world. Shows like Medium and Phenomenon help to soften viewers' views on psychics and embitter them against sceptics, and X-Files did the same for alien abductees. What's being portrayed in fiction says a lot about the culture producing and consuming it.
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written by William Kaiser, November 13, 2008
I guess I'll have to watch at least a few minutes of each of these shows to see if they live up/down to Alison's review.

I kind of doubt that either of the reviewed shows have the same style as Monk or Psych. Both of those shows, which I count as two of my favorites, are comedies! Monk does have a tragic back story though.

I am disappointed in the format of the "Woo in Review" format. I was hoping it would have a more academic approach to discussing the Woo in each show. The reviews are not of any different character than those posted on web sites that cater strictly to entertainment. smilies/cry.gif

I would humbly suggest that, in addition to the standard kind of review, that the woo presented in the show would be dissected and/or compared to current scientific knowledge. Just one example would be why something like a DNA analysis takes more that five minutes to do. It might help us Swifters explain it to the uneducated masses. smilies/wink.gif

Willy K
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written by jay b spry, November 14, 2008
Jon Dunbar:
That's exactly why I don't watch them. They are, in my opinion, a load of horse patootie. I don't believe anything worthwhile can be had (other than amusement) from fairy tales whether they are from the Bible or from the American Broadcasting Corporation.
The reviews posted here seemed to discuss the relative merits of these shows in terms of their promotion of the skeptical viewpoint. I don't believe melodrama ever promotes critical thinking, period.
I'll take Mr Ed; all he's trying to promote is shaving cream.
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written by jay b spry, November 14, 2008
-and Studebakers, of course.
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written by jbspry, November 15, 2008
On reflection I may have overstated my case.
Of course there are great works of fiction that have contributed immensely to human knowledge and understanding, e.g. War and Peace, Notre Dame de Paris, Of Mice and Men, A Tale of Two Cities, The Declaration of Independence. The Bible itself, if not taken literally as a revelation from God, has much to say that is worthwhile.
TV shows, however, do not in my opinion belong in this rank. TV is amusement and, to coin a phrase, is at its best when at its worst: Beavis and Butthead, Lost In Space, Green Acres, South Park. Whenever I hear an announcer tell me in a tension-laden voice "On Friday - a very special episode of Donkey McGee that no-one can afford to miss!" I naturally gag.
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