Simon Baker is an excellent actor. He’s likable, funny, and you can tell the guy has a terrific personality. You like spending time with him in your living room. As the star of CBS’ “The Mentalist” you can enjoy Simon’s company every week.
Unfortunately, for Mentalist fans, there are original airings of the first shows in rerun, and I happened upon one of the earlier episodes. I was surprised at how fresh and light the show felt compared to more contemporary episodes. The actors were all thinner — of course — and not as polished, but they were fun and young and spritely. There was a sense of fun and wonder to the show.
As I reflected on how the Mentalist has changed — not evolved! — over the years, the actors became fatter and storylines have become heavier and inescapable in their bloodiness. In the early shows, the unknown “Red John” was but a threat on the outskirts of the series. Now Red John dominates every episode. Whereas once the show delighted in humor and transparent fun, we are now burdened every single week with some sort of murderous and depressing news that always lands with a thud and never an enlightening “ping” as in the early days.
Longterm storyline decline is not unique to the Mentalist. As I looked back on some of my favorite, longterm, dramatic, episodic television shows, several of them started off as simple, lighthearted shows, only to end in drudgery and scorn and cynicism.
The Ghost Whisperer leaps to mind. What started as a fun show about helping people come to terms with loss in their lives devolved into an odd — The Children Are Being Taken Over By Evil Shadows — storyline that killed all the dramatic fun and sense of wonder. We loved the touching moments of catharsis at the end of each show. We did not love the ongoing threat to kids as the series wound down — as storyline after storyline — was dedicated to a child actor who could not act. The series died with a cold shudder.
I wrote extensively about the horrible demise of Medium as a television series. We used to love the freaky interaction with visions but, in the end, we were stuck with brain problems and paralysis and the death of the family! What a horrible way to end a longterm show. Sometimes it doesn’t count to be a fan of a dramatic series.
The most disappointing wrapping of a longterm show is the farce that is now Fringe. In the early days of the series, the show was truly episodic. There was a curious “fringe event” that was identified and solved. Lovely and complete. Emotionally wonderful.
Then the show changed and we were overburdened with story arcs that went on and on and on and bored us to to tears. Now, in its final season, we’re stuck in the year 2036 starring a horrible, snarky offspring, and a never-ending sense of doom and dullness that is predictable and boring. There no resolution. Only heavy darkness. We’re stuck in amber and suspended in our suspension of disbelief beyond the fourth wall. Pinned in a fifth dimension. What a depression!
What happened to Fringe? What happened to Fringe is what happened to the Ghost Whisperer and Medium and the Mentalist — the shows became too self-important and overly dramatic for the audience and they all found an untimely death in that self-inflicted dramatic overindulgence. With longevity comes power, and burden, and that challenge can either dramatically sink your show or lift you up to a higher human calling as a classic show for the Ages.
Sure, it’s hard to have longterm dramatic television episodes that do not arc across more than one show, but self-containment and resolution is always the key to long, long, longterm sustainability as a dramatic series. M*A*S*H did it as a comedy and then became a dramatic series. Lou Grant did it. Gunsmoke did it. The Law & Order series of related shows has been doing it since 1990. Can it be done anew again?