Tuesday, May 1, 2012

A Glorious Episode of ' The Mentalist'

every once in a while, television programming can be surprisingly brave. a run-of-the-mill sitcom or drama can embrace a social issue rarely touched on.  i don't mean shows engendered to be controversial--the historic MASH or the sly 'modern family,'  but a regular show with a comforting, predicable formula.  over the years, we've seen issues emerge in ordinary programs that are no longer startling: mixed race marriages; battered wives fighting back; gay parents.

the april 26 episode of 'the mentalist' has been the first of what i hope will be many to embrace in a serious way the world of drag queen entertainers.  we have seen such characters appear minorly in a few crime/procedural shows, but never to this extent and with this depth.

'the mentalist' is an averagely good procedural about a man whose eye for detail is so perfect that he goes from being a fake psychic to a police consultant--and solves pretty much every case by spotting some apparently insignificant detail none of the cops can notice. it's fun to watch, but rarely much more than that.

last week's episode was different, however.  without veering away from its common-plot basis--body found mysteriously dead,  confusion and frustration ensue until patrick figures it all out--it simply offered a change-of-usual venue.

a young man is found handcuffed inside his car, which has been set on fire.  the body is barely recognizable as human.  the nearest building is a male-drag cabaret called 'the pink noir.' when patrick and the cops arrive looking for witnesses,  the queens all express horror and sympathy at the crime; only one of them, glennda, admits to have seen anything.  during the previous night's show, she had stepped outside briefly for a breath of air, and saw the parked car and a man walking toward it.  no, she didn't see the man's face, or have any idea why he was approaching the car.  clearly the mother-figure among the queens, she looks challengingly at 'my girls' and asks if any of them have seen anything.  all vehemently deny any knowledge.  patrick and the cop he's with, teresa, are suspicious.  both are a bit taken aback at this unfamiliar world of casual, hyper-elegant queens, and teresa especially doesn't feel right about them.  when the identity of the victim is discovered, they decide another talk with the ladies is necessary: the young man was gay, and this may well be a hate crime.  as they delve deeper into the dead man's background, a history of brutality against him emerges.  the queens become less hostile to the investigation as they see that patrick and teresa are taking both them and the victim seriously.  they begin to identify with the victim--like them, a constant target for abuse. besides, one of them notes, an unsolved murder near their club is bad for business.

there are some wonderful scenes throughout.  glennda is called to the police department for questioning. she is a tall and muscular and in an offbeat way, stunning in her full drag regalia.     she remains in control of the scene:  we see her watching the reactions of the cops, her look half contemptuous, half amused--and not too far beneath the surface, pained and angry at the murder.  as she and one of the male detectives both approach the men's room at the same time, their hands almost meet on the doorknob and the cop pulls back quickly.  'ladies first,' smirks glennda almost seductively as she slithers in ahead of him.  later, after an interview with glennda, teresa is talking with patrick, who expresses surprise that she is wearing perfume.  'i'm not,' she snaps defensively, then smells her arm.  'oh, that's it.  i was interviewing glenda.  she goes in for a heavy strong scent.'  patrick smiles. 'you said 'she,'' he notes.  'earlier, it was  'he.''  'yeah, but talking to her, i got to know her a little...' teresa stammers, then shrugs. she has gone from despising the queens to experiencing their humanity.

later, back at the cabaret, patrick and teresa have more questions for the queens, and learn more about them.  each has suffered all her life because of the way she has been treated; each has a daytime job in which she must appear masculine.  one is a dentist; glennda herself is a cosmetician at a mortuary, prettying up  corpses for their funerals. patrick meets him there patrick is startled to find himself face to face, with a tall, handsome man, and it takes him a moment to recognize glennda.  it's a wonderful instant in which we, like patrick, are asked to understand the pain cross-dressers go through trying to 'pass' in a world barely ready to accept homosexuality, let alone flamboyant drag.

as the investigtion continues, we meet several suspects--the victim's father, his  ex-lover, and a co-worker, none of whom have alibis and all of whom have abused the young man.  all of the queens are also suspects; though all swear they were together getting ready for the show when the murder happened, they are all strongly bonded to each other and to the community glennda has made of them,  and would readily lie for each other. there is no apparent motive for any of them, but all would be vulnerable to blackmail if the victim had threatened it.

as a whodunit, the episode works beautifully, and like most good whodunits, it cleverly provides a few red herrings, and a few clues hard to pick up but easy to identify later.

most importantly, though, they have given us a glance at what lives 'in the closet' can do to people, what outcasts suffer  to keep secret, creating motive for crime when they are in danger of being outed, and creating hellishness in their lives that can be partially emeliorated by establishments like glennda's, which allow them to jjoyously be themselves. there is a wonderful scene toward the end when teresa keeps trying to get the queens to talk with her, while they have to get on stage. glennda grabs her wrist and pulls her onto the stage, as the others follow--and teresa findes herself part of the cast, exhuberantly dancing with people she would have dispised a few days earlier. and the viewer, like patrick in the audience, smiles with shared relief and sheer fun.

and in the end, they still solve the crime. the episode is so true to its genre that it almost doesn't seem like what it is: a different brand of morality play.  Cheers to producer-script writer Daniel Cerone and to CBS for taking this risk.


Jim said...

Makes me almost wish we had TV. Almost. :) Maybe if that series becomes available on Netflix I can look up that particular episode.

The church I belong to is an "open and affirming" congregation started by the openly gay pastor and her wife. This in itself wouldn't raise an eyebrow in most metropolitan areas any more, but in the small, rural, parochial, semi-Southern town we're in, it's amazing it exists at all. And through that I get to see and hear about such things and understand their damage every week. Which is why it is SO important to have places where everyone can "just be." Be themselves. Be who God made them to be. And accept them, just as they are.

I am blessed to have found such a community and to get to be a part of it. I am doubly blessed because my wife Leslie has embraced it, too, and our kids all seem to like it. The times, they are a-changin', and that's good. Even here close to "the middle of nowhere" the local public high school has a GSA, which 20 years ago I would have thought impossible. And it is things like TV shows that help to slowly change attitudes. Good.

Baysage said...

I saw that episode. My wife likes to gaze upon "Patrick," so I watch frequently. I don't remember being all that struck by the setting of the episode, which could be construed as a very good thing. The more "every day" these things appear, the better.