Tube Talk: When supporting characters save shows

When I watch House, it’s not for the dramatic diagnoses. (Does every patient need to have an allergic reaction to their medication and a seizure in the MRI room?) I tune in for Hugh Laurie’s layered portrayal of Dr. Gregory House. It’s interesting to watch a British actor noted for his comic turns in Blackadder and Jeeves & Wooster play an obnoxious, drug-addicted, genius of an American doctor.

I also watch Veronica Mars mostly because of Kristin Bell’s quick-witted performance as Veronica. It doesn’t hurt that the vast majority of the show’s regular and recurring characters are equally fun to watch, but Bell pulls it all together.

For some reason, House and Veronica Mars are two of a dwindling number of shows I watch because of the main characters. Quite a few other series, it seems, I watch despite the leads.

One of the first times I noticed it was with one of my all-time favorite series, Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I loved Giles, Willow, Xander—even Cordelia—but not Buffy. Most of the show’s “Big Bads” were so cool that I loved it when they defeated Buffy, if only for one episode. Spike and Drusilla. The Mayor. Faith. It wasn’t until the show’s fifth season (specifically after Buffy’s mother died) that I softened my take on Buffy. Once she had a problem her Slayer strength couldn’t solve, viewers could finally empathize with her.

Frasier was another show where I gravitated toward the supporting players. I occasionally feel that way with The Gilmore Girls. Recently, I’ve noticed a similar pattern with Grey’s Anatomy. I love Dr. Bailey, Christine and Burke, George, Izzy, Alex, and the Drs. Shepherd. But Meredith herself? Nada.

It’s nothing against the actress. It’s the simpering, self-pitying, Ally McBeal-without-the-sight-gags nature of the character that annoys me. The irritating voiceovers don’t help much, either. The height of Meredith’s irksomeness was her “Pick me!” plea to Dr. McDreamy. Yet, each week I tune in to watch not Meredith, but her cohorts, screw up their own lives while saving others at Seattle Grace.

The problem when shows combine brilliant writing with casts full of equally talented actors is that viewers wind up wanting more screen time for the secondary characters.

One of the best decisions the producers of Grey’s Anatomy made was beefing up the role of Alex. In the first season, he was just the arrogant jerk on rounds with the others. He was on the fringe of the story. This season, he’s become a more rounded character with a storyline all his own—failing his Boards. He’s one more reason to watch the show in spite of its main character.

Be honest. Wouldn’t you rather see Dr. Bailey shopping for baby things than watching Meredith keep pouting about her love live?

Programming notes

House airs Tuesdays at 8 p.m. Central on Fox

Veronica Mars airs Wednesdays at 8 p.m. Central on UPN

Grey’s Anatomy airs Sundays at 9 p.m. Central on ABC

Paula Hendrickson of Rockford is a regular contributor to Emmy Magazine and Variety, and has been published in numerous national publications including SatelliteORBIT and TVGuide.

From the Feb. 22-28, 2006, issue

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