House, in its second season, so far varies little from its reliable formula: Dr. Gregory House (Hugh Laurie), a brilliant, acerbic doctor whose people skills are zilch, still pops painkillers for his ruined leg while solving wild medical mysteries and aiming barbs at his co-workers like an Xbox-addicted boy. Complaining of the hero worship of stoic ''cancer kids,'' he whinnies: ''It's basic statistics. Some of them have to be whiny little fraidy cats.'' Yes, House is never afraid to affront, and Laurie pulls off this ragged, nasty character with ease: House gets drunk with a death-row inmate (season-opener guest star LL Cool J); House proclaims he wants to watch a little girl being told she's going to die both, it's revealed, for valid if flagrantly roundabout medical reasons.
House thrives on its one-two punch of ''He's a cad...a genius cad!'' But the series falters when it comes to genuine character development. Sela Ward has joined the cast as House's beloved, alienated ex-girlfriend, and so far is stuck in the background, being vaguely strong-willed. Omar Epps lands a potentially powerful story line when his Dr. Foreman, a former car thief, does some soul-searching after spending time with the death-row inmate. Unfortunately, Epps, a gifted actor, is given the slimmest context to make this introspection work it feels as hollow and unearned as those music-filled montages now ending so many episodes. House himself could offer the series a lesson: When you've got the smarts, don't bother faking the emotion.