Television shows involving crime and policing very much dominate prime-time television. But to what extent are these shows stylized portrayals of the realities of policing? Is police deviance glamorized, as opposed to conventional, legitimate policing? As argued by Cummins et. all, a repercussion of these shows is that “the day-to-day reality of policing is obscured from the vast majority of the public who have little direct contact with the Criminal Justice System” (2014).
One could argue that The Mentalist is one such show. The series follows Patrick Jane (played by Simon Baker), a once highly successful, affluent psychic. Jane had his wife and daughter murdered in consequence of his going on a national news show and taunting serial killer Red John, speaking on his motives and mental state, as well as his childhood. Spiraling into an unhealthy succession of rage, isolation, and depression following the murder, he admits his career was fraudulent and that no one possesses psychic powers. Rather, he’s simply very intelligent, observant, deductive, and socially skilled. Therefore, he is able to manipulate the average person.
During his prolonged phase of despondency, Jane coincidentally stumbles into the office of the CBI (California Bureau of Investigation), and after some time they decide his talents are conspicuous enough for them to hire him as a consultant. To their surprise, he assists the CBI in closing virtually every case they come across. However, his ultimate underlying goal is to find and exact revenge on Red John. Despite being a member of an agency that rhapsodizes over the values of the justice system, Jane considers it a slow, tedious and broken process. Accordingly, his methods are very unorthodox and he regularly eludes police procedure, but he is efficient nonetheless.
The following clip exemplifies this:
Punch (2009, p. 25) has constructed a typology of “police officers and their relationship to deviance and corruption.” These include uniform carriers, mister average, professionals, noble causers, innovators and number crunchers, crusaders, ideological combatants, lone wolves, and cowboys. Though Patrick is not a police officer per se, he can be identified as a lone wolf, which is a category, Punch implies, that encompasses officers who are committed to one particular case and may resort to deviant means in order to solve it. For Jane, “committed” may be too weak a word to define his relationship with the Red John case. The sole reason he joined the CBI in the first place was to seek revenge on the killer, and he tirelessly pursues the case on his own time throughout the show. He is no stranger to aberrant methods, either. In one particular episode, he illegitimately gains access to Red John’s case files. He has repeatedly stated that if he ever comes face-to-face with Red John himself, he would not hesitate to kill him. He is also known to tamper with evidence to ensure that the guilty is found guilty.
Let us now shift our focus from Patrick Jane as a character and how his behavior embodies deviance, to a comparison of police/criminal investigation proceedings within the show and those in real life – fiction vs. reality. Furthermore, the interrelatedness of this and the show’s production of deviant policing related themes that appeal to viewers.
The portrayal of crime solving in The Mentalist is an obvious departure from reality, in that it is shown to be less challenging than it actually is. The video above, for example, is a simplistic depiction of crime scene investigation, in that Patrick makes huge assumptions from very little work upon arriving. Cummins et. all assert that such condensed narratives are “almost completely divorced from the reality of modern police work” (2014).
Jane opting for vigilante justice rather than generally following the criminal justice system is indefinitely an indication of the show aiming for the allure of deviancy in policing, in contrast to conventional policing. Additionally, Patrick will commonly convince members of his team to engage in his elaborate plans, that he constructs in order to deceive or persuade suspects one way or another (this includes tactics such as hypnotizing them, in certain episodes) to out themselves as the killer. The same applies to interrogations, as he will pry a confession out of a suspect, that he himself has systematically narrowed down as the wrongdoer, by any means necessary. This being the case, the manner in which interrogations are carried out is another big distinction in police procedure in the show compared to reality. The show takes place in California. As per California law, anytime an admission or confession made during police interrogation is involuntary, it is considered to be obtained through denial of due process of law (Robison, 1969, p. 740). As a result, the confession is excluded from the evidence at the trial. The show completely ignores the possibility of the evidence that Jane obtains illegitimately being thrown out. This affirms Cummins’ view that popular crime drama shows are “full of procedural errors. (p. 5).
Cummins suggests that the “dominant portrayal” of policing is one that pushes serious crimes, including murder and serial killers (p. 2), and this entirely captures the premise of The Mentalist. This is unambiguous sensationalization of police work. However, Cummins maintains that policing includes the element of routine just as any other job does, and so “a realistic drama would be unwatchable” (p. 3).
- Cummins, I., Foley, M., & King, M. (2014). ‘… And After the Break’: Police Officers’ Views of TV Crime Drama. Policing.
- Punch, M. (2009). Police corruption: Deviance, accountability and reform in policing. Routledge.
Robison, T. (1969). Police Interrogation of Suspects: The Court Versus the Congress. California Law Review, 740-777.