'The Mentalist' Hits 100

 

When The Mentalist airs "Red Dawn," its 100th episode, on Oct. 28, the series will mark the milestone by breaking with the show's regular narrative. Flashing back eight years, the prequel gives fans their first opportunity to see Patrick Jane, the suave, fraudulent psychic played by Simon Baker, collaborating with detectives after the serial killer whom he brags he helps police profile murders his wife and daughter in revenge.

"We wanted the hundredth episode to be fun for the actors and production crew," says Bruno Heller, The Mentalist's creator. "We'd never really gone back to Jane at that moment, so it's a great, fresh angle for Baker to be able to play."

Baker endorsed the concept enthusiastically. "To put a spin on it like that was great," he says. "There's no perceived idea who this character is. It was like making another version of the pilot."

To enhance the prequel's sense of time travel, executive producer Chris Long, who directed the episode, instructed the set designers, costumers and makeup artists to backdate the characters a decade. For co-star Robin Tunney, who plays senior agent Teresa Lisbon, that meant a wig. "They couldn't do the Benjamin Button thing for me, so I just got bangs again," she says. Amanda Righetti, who plays special agent Grace Van Pelt and was quite pregnant during filming, sat out the anniversary completely. "You only see me in a photograph," says Righetti. Long wanted the Jane character, fresh out of prison, to look suitably bedraggled but says he discovered that the eternally dashing Baker can't do disheveled: "The thing about Simon is, no matter what you do to him, he still looks amazing."

Simon Says Yes

Instantly attracted to the project when Heller pitched him in 2007, Warner Bros. Television president Peter Roth was stumped when it came to casting the lead. "[Heller] said, 'Imagine our hero is the son of Sherlock Holmes and Angelina Jolie.' He's supposed to look like Basil Rathbone with a great body -- how the hell are we going to find someone as perfect as this?"

Enter Baker, then 38, who had just been freed up from CBS' short-lived Smith and was riding a wave of interest from his well-received turn as a conniving writer in The Devil Wears Prada.

"I spent most of my holiday on the phone with bloody Peter Roth trying to talk me into doing this thing," recalls Baker. Reluctant to jump into another series, Baker says Heller's collaborative nature (and Roth's persistence) ultimately swayed him. "That's probably the greatest thing for me, 100 episodes later. That trust gave me a lot of confidence, creatively."

Tunney, who was cast before Baker, remembers being anxious ahead of the hunt for a lead. "I liked the script, and I thought it worked," she says, "but I thought, 'If they don't get somebody good, this show is going to be terrible.' "

Seeing Red

The road to The Mentalist's 100th episode was paved with good intentions that sometimes turned hellish. Titling every show so that it alludes to the color red in some fashion -- a reference to Jane's nemesis, the never-seen Red John, the serial murderer who killed Jane's family -- has become something of a millstone, Heller ruefully admits. "I long ago gave up trying to be clever," he says. "It was actually a very bad idea, but it's been going on too long to stop."

And ... Action

Baker and Heller's affable working relationship has led to the star directing several episodes -- a job Baker previously had performed exactly once, on another CBS series, The Guardian. "I act because I like the process of it, not because I love watching myself," says Baker. "I like to play around with the darker stuff."

Specifically, Baker the director prefers to focus on Jane's past with Red John, and he recently directed season five's "Red Sails in the Sunset." Tunney likes his style. "He knows me so well, he'll tell me, 'Remember that time your parents didn't take you to Disneyland?' " she says. "And I'll start crying."

Foreign Affairs

Consistently one of the most-watched series in the U.S. since its 2008 debut to 15.6 million viewers, The Mentalist has proved an even bigger draw internationally. The weekly worldwide audience currently stands at 34 million, including the 9 million domestically in the series' new Sunday night slot on CBS.

The third-highest-rated U.S. series in the U.K. behind Dallas and Homeland, The Mentalist tops its time slot in Canada and is No. 2 in Australia.

"Unlike many American shows abroad, The Mentalist most often plays in primetime," says Warner Bros. International Television president Jeffrey Schlesinger. "It was a familiar kind of show but a new iteration of it. People were very comfortable with it and felt it could appeal to a broad audience."

And no international audience has found it more appealing than the French. The Mentalist rates as the nation's most-watched show, topping all U.S., French, scripted and unscripted offerings and boasting an especially strong edge with female viewers."I think the reaction in France was an enormous shock," says Schlesinger. "Even though we know procedurals do so well there, we would have never guessed The Mentalist would be the number-one show for the last three years running. It just struck a chord."

Quips Roth: "It's Jerry Lewis and Simon Baker. I don't know what they have in common, but vive la France."

THE MENTALIST'S INTERNATONAL INTRIGUE: Across the globe, 34 million people watch The Mentalist per week.

  • France: No. 1 series
  • U.K.: No. 3 drama series
  • Australia: No 2 in its time slot
  • Germany: No. 2 U.S. scripted series
  • Canada: No. 1 in its time slot
  • Spain: No. 2 U.S. scripted series
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