Driv­ing us men­tal

Si­mon Baker likes to play char­ac­ters who have an es­sen­tial wrong­ness— in­clud­ing for­mer psy­chic Pa­trick Jane, writes Aaron Barn­hart

Herald Sun - Switched On - - Guide -

IF YOU were a bloke with Si­mon Baker’s looks, or just his hair, you’d prob­a­bly be the strong, si­lent type, too.

Af­ter all, there’s re­ally no need to ad­ver­tise your­self when the ladies in­stantly swoon at your close-up.

‘‘I spend 19 hours a day on the set with him and an­other three hours talk­ing about him,’’ Baker’s co-star from The Men­tal­ist, Robin Tun­ney, says.

‘‘Peo­ple stop me at the gro­cery store. I feel like I should have a list of an­swers: ‘Yes, he looks like that in per­son. Yes, he’s hap­pily mar­ried. Yes, he’s straight — sorry!’ ’’

Aussie cam­era mag­net Baker has starred or co-starred in a string of CBS shows — The Guardian, Smith and top-rat­ing The Men­tal­ist — without hav­ing to open his mouth very much.

When Baker speaks, it’s in the sel­dom-raised voice of a man who knows a mi­cro­phone is pick­ing up his words.

For a while, it seemed as though hav­ing a low pro­file on a net­work top-heavy with male leads was work­ing against him.

CBS can­celled The Guardian af­ter three sea­sons. Then he played a nutty sharp­shooter on Smith, who whis­tled while he worked — in his case, work in­volved killing peo­ple. CBS pulled the plug on that af­ter three episodes.

But net­work ex­ec­u­tives knew they had a good thing in Baker and kept throw­ing ideas at him. Smart, con­sid­er­ing The Men­tal­ist is the third big­gest show on CBS, be­hind CSI and NCIS.

‘‘Of the hun­dreds of scripts I looked at since The Guardian, I went with this one be­cause Bruno gets it,’’ Baker says.

That would be Bruno Heller, best known as the cre­ator of HBO’s $100 mil­lion toga party, Rome, who rose to an even greater chal­lenge with The Men­tal­ist: write a crime pro­ce­dural that doesn’t bore view­ers by looking like all the other crime pro­ce­du­rals.

So Heller cre­ated Pa­trick Jane — one-time TV psy­chic, now crime solver. A man who used to make big bucks com­mu­ni­cat­ing with ‘‘the other side’’ but who now uses his pow­ers of ob­ser­va­tion to catch sus­pects off guard and ex­ploit their weak­nesses in or­der to force con­fes­sions.

There’s noth­ing ter­ri­bly orig­i­nal about The Men­tal­ist. Many view­ers have noted Chan­nel 10 drama Psych is also about pre­tend psy­chics, but it all works.

‘‘I’m al­ways drawn to char­ac­ters that have a sort of a wrong­ness about them,’’ Baker says.

‘‘And what I love about this char­ac­ter is, he’s try­ing to come back. He doesn’t wear his wrong­ness on his sleeve.’’

That’s true. Baker is es­sen­tially res­ur­rect­ing the char­ac­ter he played in The Guardian.

Back then, he was a moody jerk of a lawyer serv­ing as a pub­lic guardian for at-risk kids, not be­cause he wanted to give back, but be­cause at his last drug trial, the judge told him to.

On The Men­tal­ist, he’s also try­ing to pay so­ci­ety back for be­ing selfish, not be­cause he’s be­come a nice guy, but be­cause he’s suf­fered.

‘‘He’s a dark char­ac­ter whose hero­ism is not in mus­cles or action but in be­ing pos­i­tive in his life de­spite what he does and the tragedy he’s faced with,’’ Heller says.

The Men­tal­ist was such an easy sell that some crit­ics pre­dicted it would be an out-of-the-gate hit. Still, it came as a sur­prise the first week when The Men­tal­ist fin­ished as the No.1-rated show in the US. That hadn’t hap­pened to a first-year pro­gram since Des­per­ate House

four years ear­lier. Heller swears that even psy­chics are fans — at least the fake ones.

‘‘The en­ter­tain­ers I’ve spo­ken to love the show,’’ he says. ‘‘It’s great ad­ver­tis­ing for their schtick.’’

The se­ri­ous psy­chics — not so much.

‘‘My wife be­lieves that stuff com­pletely,’’ Heller adds. ‘‘I don’t. The in­ter­est­ing thing is that the peo­ple who are good at it are just us­ing their nat­u­ral gifts of in­tu­ition and em­pa­thy to a su­per­nat­u­ral power. But they’re still pre­tend­ing.’’

Heller says the chal­lenge is to keep the show in ‘‘dy­namic sta­sis,’’ not tin­ker­ing too much with the for­mula that’s bring­ing in so many view­ers.

Still, you can’t help but no­tice that Heller has al­ready re­sorted to one gim­mick so soon in the show’s first sea­son: Pa­trick, who hates rules for rea­sons never en­tirely made clear — the strong, si­lent type, re­mem­ber — has al­ready threat­ened to walk out on his by-the-book boss (Tun­ney).

How many times can Pa­trick play the ‘‘I quit’’ card be­fore it gets tire­some? Baker pauses, then says: ‘‘I think seven. I’ve threat­ened to quit once this year. Seven, then. One a year.’’

The Men­tal­ist a seven-year hit? There’s ev­ery chance of that.

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