CBS's beguiling freshman series

The Mentalist

hit a new ratings mark this week with nearly 20 million viewers.

If this was your first taste of the drama, you should know the chef was having a bad night. The food is usually much better.

"Red John's Friends" was, in fact, the weakest episode yet of

The Mentalist

.

First, it abandoned the central premise: Patrick Jane (Simon Baker) is a former fake psychic who uses his acute powers of observation and close readings of people to solve crimes. Like Sherlock Holmes meets Dr. Phil.

There wasn't a single example of Patrick's signature magic in this episode. Instead he solved a creaky old locked-door mystery that would have seemed stale if Charlie Chan was the detective.

And it was implausible. Again and again, Patrick got people to admit to felonies merely by asking a few questions. "Yes, I've gotten away with this heinous crime for 20 years, but since you asked so nicely. . . ."

The story revived the serial killer Red John, who, back in the pilot, murdered Patrick's family, setting the series in motion. That meant our hero was grim and haunted for the entire hour as he sought to apprehend his nemesis. But Baker's twinkly, roguish charm is

The Mentalist

's greatest asset.

I understand why it was necessary to remind the audience about Red John at the halfway point of the season. You want to set up that riveting cliffhanger in May.

But did you have to derail the show in the process?

Drunk, not desperate.

Have you noticed how often the visiting villainess on

Desperate Housewives

is some crass, boozy old dame? I'm guessing that series creator Marc Cherry has a scary aunt in his closet.

I love the latest shrew: Melina (Joanna Cassidy), who is driving Bree (Marcia Cross) crazy by sitting on her front steps, chugging beers and crushing the empties.

An exasperated Bree said to her husband, "She's such a troglodyte!" Now that's a word you don't hear often in prime time.

What's your hurry?

This has been a season of shockingly early exits, with marquee actors disappearing right after they are introduced.

An appealing Gil (

Ally McBeal

) Bellows was set up as the second lead in A&E's

The Cleaner

, then he died of an overdose at the end of the season debut. And the always impressive Paige (

Party of Five

) Turco was bumped off this week in the season opener of

Damages

on FX.

Don't bother too much with makeup, kid. You're not going to be here long.

On a wobbly wagon.

How did Chuck Bass (Ed Westwick) spend his winter break on

Gossip Girl

? Smoking opium in Thailand. His first day back at school, he lit up a joint in front of the headmistress.

Well, at least he and the other teens on

GoGi

have cut back on the cocktails so far in 2009. Maybe that was their New Year's resolution: Give their livers a break.

Missing in action.

If I had spent as much time in my life reading the Wall Street Journal as I have TV Guide, I'd probably be in better shape financially.

I noticed over the last few weeks in TV Guide that listings for the CW, home of

Smallville

,

90210

and other imperishable pleasures, are completely missing from the prime-time grid.

The network declined to comment. Scott Crystal, TV Guide's CEO and president, framed it as a space issue.

"There are now hundreds of channels on television and we can only accommodate approximately 70 in our primetime grids," he e-mailed. "In the past few weeks, the following networks have not appeared in the grids: MTV, CW, DIY and TV Guide Network."

But the CW is the only broadcast outlet in that bunch. And it simply doesn't make sense to drop it while continuing to run listings for far more marginal competitors like ION and MyNetworkTV.

Something is rotten in prime time.