I was, until recently, fairly certain that the best ensemble cast on TV was NCIS, with a close second in Psych. NCIS is built on nothing but group dynamics; each character is strong and well-developed, but the show runs on their interplay more than on their individuality. They fill more than one role: mentoring relationships fluctuate back and forth, power structures are always in question, and most of the dialog's punch is held in the interaction between the principles. This is in contrast to most scripted cop/medical/legal dramas, where the bulk of the action takes place in dialog between the protagonist and a one-off villain or the particular patient, case, or what have you.
Obviously Psych is a different brand of show, far closer to Scrubs in tone. But while Scrubs based its humor on JD's interactions almost exclusively (especially in narration) Psych's subsidiary characters are arguably funnier than their protagonist. Notably, in scrubs there is no straight man (and I mean more than the homo-erotic tension between Nancy and his Brown Bear.) Psych has a strong base of straight supporting characters who can play funny if necessary, but who truly shine as a backdrop to the "comic" characters.
Well, to mix metaphors, there's a new dog on the block! The Mentalist is brilliant. It's a very well written episodic crime show with an overarching plot that promises to be extremely compelling. They get a little heavy handed, and there is one character who, as of halfway into the first season, still hasn't done a singe interesting thing.
These quibbles I am willing to drop, however, because despite my initial impressions, Mentalist is not a one-man show. Patrick Jane is not, thank goodness, Gregory House. While he does drive the show, the cops around him are not only competent developing characters, but they are often as entertaining and impressive as Jane himself. Cho is a standout character who deserves and will probably get his own fully fledged blog post, but the ridiculously-named Van Pelt is not only stunning (which I think everyone will admit the women of Princeton Plainsborough Teaching Hospital are in spades), but *interesting*. The big fella is actually unpredictable; shocking when you consider roles like his in other television shows. Sure, he's always hungry, clueless about women, etc. The fun part is that even though his actions play to stereotypes, they are not always the stereotypes they should be. He'll go womanize when he ought not, and he'll whine when he ought to bluster.
Jane himself is disarming, charming, and everything he should be. I find myself associating him with Goldblum's role in Law and Order: CI. Utterly, impossibly perfect at all times, absurdly competent, kind of a jerk, completely selfless-- come to think of it, the only person who can stand up to this juggernaut is Mary Poppins. Practically perfect in every way, and knows it.
Now, as I mentioned, the show is occasionally a little too determined. The insistence that every show title must have the word "red" in it is *not* artistic; it's lame and forced. And the nice lady who is Jane's boss and potential love interest is boring. I can't even find the energy to dislike her. She's just there. It will take serious work before I'll buy her as a match for Jane.
But oh, the cast of this show (when it's good) is *so* good. I think I have to make a little room on the shelf.