The great crime series comeback

Decades after Lieutenant Columbo made a career out of reading between the lines, two new crime series – The Mentalist and Lie To Me – turn experts in the dark art of deception into crime-busting heroes. Sarah Hughes investigates the plots...

Meet Patrick Jane, independent consultant with the improbably named California Bureau of Investigation and lead character in Five's new US import, The Mentalist. Jane (played by Australian actor Simon Baker) is a bit of a charmer and a bit of a rebel. He has a tendency to cut corners and a troubled past, which he prefers not to mention. So far, so standard for a TV cop show except for one thing: before deciding to work with the police Jane was a TV psychic, or in US-speak a "mentalist". Following a personal tragedy, Jane has since turned his back on showbiz, admitting that his show was faked but the acute powers of observation he honed for the act make him a useful if occasionally erratic partner for the overworked detectives of the CBI.

And Jane isn't the only mind-reading detective strutting his stuff on the small screen this season. Dr Cal Lightman, hero of Fox's Lie To Me, which starts on Sky One in April, is apparently "the world's leading deception expert", a man who has made a lifelong study of body language and facial expressions and who can therefore tell not only if someone is lying but, more importantly, why they are doing so. Like Jane, Lightman prefers to use his powers of observation for good and thus, instead of conning people out of their life savings, works with law enforcement and government agencies to track down the bad guys and make sure lying doesn't pay.

Like Jane, Lightman is cocky, occasionally petulant, prepared to break the rules and something of a tortured soul. He is played by Tim Roth, which means that, in contrast to Baker, who leavens his character's troubled past with a dash of (slightly smarmy) charm, Lightman's appeal lies in the sense that he might be holding it together now but everything could come crashing down at any moment, bringing violence and mayhem in its wake.

Superficially The Mentalist and Lie To Me might seem not just similar to each other but also to a number of other shows, from the comedy Psych, in which a novice sleuth cons the police into believing he has psychic powers, to Medium in which Patricia Arquette solves crimes and talks to dead people. But, no matter how formulaic their premises, both shows are clearly getting something right: they're the two biggest new hits on American television this year.

Forget the critically acclaimed Mad Men, the much-debated Lost or even the guilty pleasures of Gossip Girl, it turns out that the American public still prefers its television to be relatively straightforward, peppered with one-liners and preferably featuring the police. The Mentalist is America's highest rated new drama, averaging 16.96 million viewers for each episode, while Lie To Me, which was a mid-season replacement for Fox, starting its run in January, pulls in 12 million each week.

And with most of the new shows failing to make an impression, these two relatively undemanding dramas are the standout hits of the season. So what exactly is the secret to their success? After all, there is hardly a shortage of crime dramas with quirky male leads and unconventional methods. In addition to Lie To Me and The Mentalist, viewers needing a regular fix of quirk can tune into Numb3rs (featuring a troubled FBI agent and his mathematical genius of a brother), Monk (featuring a troubled obsessive-compulsive private detective) or, if they fancy a change of scenery, House (featuring a troubled doctor who cracks medical cases).

Creating a TV hit, however, is not as simple as taking a popular trope, in this case, the intuitive genius who remains curiously unaware about his own private flaws, and giving it a new setting. For, while there's no denying that a herd mentality exists among network television executives ensuring that almost every successful show reminds you of one that went before, it's also true that to create a genuine ratings winner you need to bring a little something extra, an added spice that will induce viewers to tune in every week.

In the case of The Mentalist, that spice is provided by its leading man. It's pretty hard to make a petulant narcissist with maturity issues loveable, but Simon Baker, until now best known for as the cocky yet likeable novelist who chases Anne Hathaway in The Devil Wears Prada, manages to pull it off. It's partially due to a certain gleeful charm and a sense that Baker is having fun, and partially because the 39-year-old Australian is good-looking in a square-jawed, blond beefcake kind of way. As Peter Roth, president of Warner Bros Television, which produces the show, told the New York Post's TV Watch column: "Let's put it this way, he's not hard on the eyes. My wife thinks so."

Hits are not built on good looks alone, however, and The Mentalist benefits from a reasonably funny script and some fast-moving plotlines. Yes, ultimately it's easy, undemanding fare but, crucially, it's well-made easy, undemanding fare. It might not demand a lot from its audience, but it doesn't insult them, either. It's not quite that elusive beast, a Moonlighting for the 21st century, but it's better than most of the other shows attempting to pull that trick off and, given time, it might be.

By contrast, Lie To Me is an altogether more tricky beast, whose appeal largely lies not so much in the plots of the week or even in Roth's taut performance, but rather in the way in which the show forces the audience to become involved. For, when not solving crimes, Roth's character makes a lucrative living on the lecture circuit and it's here that the fun really kicks in. Each week, we see footage of famous people and then Lightman explains how you can tell that they were lying. As a gimmick, it's satisfying and incredibly simple. It's human nature to want to catch people out, and it's all the more enjoyable when those people are famous. This is Lie To Me's unique selling point. In other dramas we tune in and watch detectives catch people through dogged police work (The Wire) or the use of flashy equipment (CSI) or because they are corrupt (The Shield), but Lie To Me says "watch our show and you too will learn how to catch people out when they lie to you". This isn't merely television, people, it's downright educational.

At this point the cynical question is, "But aren't they just making it all up?" And the answer is, apparently not. Lie To Me's makers have worked closely with Paul Ekman, a former professor of psychology, who now trains law enforcement agencies about body language. Ekman, who also worked with John Cleese on the 2001 BBC documentary The Human Face, is credited with helping the show's creators to maintain some sort of scientific grounding, although for the show's star, Roth, the association is both more personal and more uncomfortable. "I get really freaked out sometimes when I'm around Paul," he says. "It's like travelling with a critic from The New York Times and wherever you go, there's the guy going 'No, I don't believe you. The performance was terrible'... It's an extraordinary feeling of nakedness."

And, while there's no denying that Lie To Me has benefited from The Mentalist's success – it was granted its plum position following American Idol largely because of the CBS drama's success – those involved are keen to stress that their show remains the more realistic of the two. "Our show is based on actual science while The Mentalist is, I think, more of a scam," said Roth's co-star Brendan Hines at the Lie To Me launch, a comment that led to much talk of a growing rivalry.

Yet ultimately isn't all TV something of a scam, requiring the viewer, as it does, to willingly suspend belief for an hour or two? And for all the talk of which show is best or most realistic or most entertaining to watch, the truth remains that both shows owe the same debt. Not to House or to Monk or to Medium or even to Psych, but to the granddaddy of them all, the man in the dirty mac with the uncomfortable habit of reading the body language of the criminals he was after and then catching them out with the perfectly timed delivery of his catchphrase: "Just one more thing..." Yes, that's right, the real secret behind the success of The Mentalist and Lie To Me is that they're 21st-century versions of Columbo.

'The Mentalist' starts on Five at 9pm on Thursday 26 March; 'Lie To Me' comes to Sky One at the end of April