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Rick Kushman: Great TV isn't easily duplicated

We've hit the season when news from Hollywood about possible new fall shows gets the TV world all kaflubbered and jumping to overstatement by declaring trends.

The declaration this year, from everyone from studio and network brass to entertainment reporters, is the one you've been hearing in some form about pretty much every industry. You and I, and our fellow economically besieged Americans, are looking for comfort food.

That are words they all use, "comfort food."

Wouldn't you expect at least a few of these cultural pundits to come up with a different cliche? That, of course, would take original thought, and not getting swept along in the common wisdom. Good luck finding that.

In any case, the reason for this trend spotting starts with the success of CBS's "The Mentalist," which is averaging nearly 18 million viewers and growing, and is the third highest rated scripted show this season.

And the networks are developing a lot of similar, straightforward series for next fall.

Making a show like "The Mentalist" is a solid idea, but I'm talking quality, not style. And if there's any real "trend" to be found in TV tastes, it's that nothing major has changed. Not this year and not in a few years. What people are looking for is good shows.

"The Mentalist" is popular because it's a very good show.

It's not brain surgery, but it's witty and zippy and star Simon Baker is charming. Fox's "House" is massively popular, too, and it is exactly brain surgery. It's also anything but comforting, but it's smart and fast and rewarding.

The link between the two? Quality.

One of the biggest flaws of Hollywood thinking, and particularly in the TV industry, is the knee-jerk reaction to see any show's success as a genre trend or an example of some overarching national hunger. In truth, most hits are simply triumphs of writing, casting and execution.

That's a problem throughout media where there's a certain inability to evaluate why some things we do connect and others don't. That's in big part because any pop culture success is a blend of luck, timing and, usually, talent that can't be easily copied.

In TV, the problem can be massive, because network and studio execs are often business people, not creative folks, and can't really recognize the right-brain side of the success formula.

So they look for models to duplicate. A couple seasons back, they saw that "Lost" and "24" were hits, so all the networks pumped out complex serialized dramas. Every one failed.

Great TV is genuine and original and entertaining, but it's never what the last show did.

Who knew that a series about a 1960s ad agency like "Mad Men" would be so mesmerizing and so clearly Emmy worthy?

That's the only trend. We want good shows. Those are always good medicine.

Television columnist Rick Kushman can be reached at rkushman@sacbee.com.

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