On the surface, Gregory House and Patrick Jane have little in common. One is a pill-popping, emotionally crippled doctor with the worst bedside manner since Typhoid Mary. The other is a sly, borderline-psychic investigator who takes unabashed pleasure in watching bad guys squirm.
But the characters share a common trait, one that goes a long way in explaining why their shows, “House” and “The Mentalist,” are among TV’s most popular.
Season Five Premiere
Hugh Laurie, Omar Epps, Robert Sean Leonard, Lisa Edelstein, Jennifer Morrison, Jesse Spencer, Olivia Wilde, Kal Penn
Regular airtime: Tuesdays, 8pm ET
(Fox; US: 16 Sep 2008)
Simon Baker, Robin Tunney, Amanda Righetti, Tim Kang, Owain Yeoman
Regular airtime: Tuesdays, 9pm ET
(CBS; US: 23 Sep 2008)
They’re both creatures of habit.
During any given hour, House will diagnosis some mysterious disease, dispensing poisonous barbs along the way, while Jane will unravel a complex murder mystery, flashing his killer smile any chance he gets. They’re quick at everything except character development. It’s a formula as old as Marshal Dillon’s gun holster or Marcus Welby’s scrubs - and it’s still clicking with viewers.
Fox’s “House,” which recently celebrated its 100th episode, consistently finishes in the top 10 and remains Monday night’s most popular show. CBS’ “The Mentalist” draws nearly 20 million people every week and is the hottest rookie series since ABC launched “Desperate Housewives” and “Lost” in fall 2004.
The appetite for predictable procedurals is particularly gratifying for CBS, which leans the most on the genre. CBS entertainment president Nina Tassler boasts that six of the network’s crime dramas, which include three “CSI” shows and “NCIS,” have crept up in ratings this season.
“I’m not concerned about how many of these kind of shows we have as long as they’re distinct, well-crafted and resonate with the audience,” said Tassler, adding that an “NCIS” spinoff is in the works.
At the same time, cable dramas, which tend to be more serialized in nature and thereby punish viewers who dare to miss an episode, are suffering. The popularity of HBO’s “Big Love” is steadily dropping, FX’s “Damages” has lost nearly half its core audience in its second season and USA just canceled its prime-time soap “The Starter Wife.” At the same time, USA’s much breezier, more formulaic “Burn Notice” is attracting about 6 million viewers a week, more than three times the audience of “Starter Wife.”
Bruno Heller, who created “The Mentalist,” said the continuing success of procedurals should come as no surprise.
“One of the great things about TV is the familiarity that comes with it,” said Heller, whose last series was HBO’s “Rome,” a series with legions of characters and complexities that never caught on with a wide audience. “With procedurals, unlike serial dramas, things aren’t going to change. So-and-so isn’t going to get divorced and leave. Stuff happens, but there’s continuity.”
“Mentalist” star Simon Baker said his series is particularly appropriate during the current economic crisis.
“It’s ridiculous how well these kind of shows are doing right now and I think there’s a greater social thing going on,” he said from the show’s set. “There’s a beginning, middle and end. I think people are looking for closure. It’s as simple as that.”
Although Baker recognizes the audience’s desire for dramas like “The Mentalist,” he admits that he hesitated before signing on.
“There was a little trepidation in the beginning,” he said. “As an actor, I didn’t know if I wanted to do a procedural. I thought it might be really limiting. But the character was so interesting and had so many different layers. There were so many different ways you could go with him that I didn’t think it would get boring.”
If anyone had the right to complain about a bad case of deja vu, it’d be Hugh Laurie.
He’s earned two Golden Globes and became one of TV’s biggest stars thanks to “House,” but he’s also constrained by playing a Scrooge who seems incapable of redemption.
Laurie, however, has no complaints.
“Freshness? If anything, I’ve got too much freshness,” he said. “I have to sort of dial it back. But I feel for the writers. I’m sure there’s many, many times when they’ve put their head in their hands and said, ‘There are only so many ways a tumor can present itself and we are out of them.’ Mercifully, that’s their problem, not mine.”
“House” creator David Shore also dodged the opportunity to whine.
“Luckily for us, and unluckily for humanity, there’s a shocking amount of ways that things can present themselves,” he said. “It is a challenge, though. I’m amazed we’ve done a hundred of them. I didn’t think we’d get through six.”
Shore and Heller are quick to point out that their shows do occasionally draw outside the lines. Jane is haunted every so often by an unknown serial killer who wiped out his family. House and his supervisor, Lisa Cuddy (Lisa Edelstein), are currently making goo-goo eyes at each other.
But both producers insist that they’re not about to stray far or for too long from the premise. Jane’s nemesis won’t be unmasked anytime soon, and if House and Cuddy actually end up together, I’ll swallow my stethoscope.
“There is something necessary and unavoidable about delivering what you set out to deliver,” Laurie said. “We have to be who we are. If we depart too far from the structure, we risk being more disappointing than satisfying.”