Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Why I'm Still Watching "House"

The season finale of "House" aired last night, and this post will contain spoilers, so gentle reader do beware. It had all the soap opera hallmarks that I so detest in other medical shows - one character's progressing terminal illness, a sudden about-face in a long-term relationship, and the not-so-subtle-poking at many an old demon - but I sat riveted through the entire hour. In my defense, this episode was unlike most of the other formulaic installments of "House," with the week's medical mystery only a peripheral concern. Instead, most of the story followed the nail-biting attempts to rescue a young woman pinned under a collapsed building, with House put in the unlikely position of her hand-holder. The ending was an unhappy one for the patient, leaving the good doctor to grapple with the emotional fallout.

A few thoughts on Dr. Gregory House, the acid-tongued, curmudgeonly diagnostician with a combative bedside manner, a host of personal flaws, and a brilliant mind that lets him get away with murder. I think he may be my favorite television character ever, and he's certainly the reason I keep coming back to "House" from week to week. Once in a while you get a great actor in the right role, something ineffable clicks, and suddenly you can't imagine that they ever played anyone else. Hugh Laurie was part of the British comedic landscape for ages, best known for affable nitwits like Bertie Wooster from "Jeeves and Wooster" and Prince George from the third series of "Blackadder." Before 2004, Americans probably knew him best as the milquetoast adoptive father of the title character in "Stuart Little."

As House, Laurie inhabits another universe entirely. His best moments aren't the ones where he's manipulating his interns, insulting his patients, or pranking his colleagues, but the silent pauses in between when his humanity peeks through. What Laurie does so well is to make House emotionally transparent to the audience, though he often isn't to the other characters. We can tell when he feels guilty, regretful, vulnerable, or unsettled, usually as something completely different is coming out of his mouth. When I first came across "House," I was drawn in by the character's casual sarcasm and hints of misanthropy, a wonderful break from the standard TV doctor humanist schtick. I stayed for his battles with Vicodin addiction, his brushes with self-destruction, and his oft embattled friendships with oncologist James Wilson (Robert Sean Leonard) and hospital administrator Lisa Cuddy (Lisa Edelstein) - also his primary romantic interest.

Of course, I also had to contend with the show's less admirable moments. House operates from day to day with a diagnostics team of younger doctors. Initially these were Eric Foreman (Omar Epps), Allison Cameron (Jennifer Morrison) and Robert Chase (Jesse Spencer), later replaced by Remy "Thirteen" Hadley (Olivia Wilde), Chris Taub (Peter Jacobson), and Lawrence Kutner (Kal Penn). They're used for shameless padding whenever the major storylines with House need a breather, and never get much room to develop or grow. I'm grateful that the rate of "Grey's Anatomy" style hook-ups and melodramas among the group have been relatively minimal, but otherwise these characters never rise above the level of good-looking props. Cameron's and Chase's relationship largely happened offscreen until the break-up was needed for sweeps. Kal Penn's abrupt departure might have had more impact if Kutner hadn't been such a blank.

I haven't been thrilled with the treatment of House's personal troubles either. After several years of ups and downs, the end of last season saw his vicodin addiction spiral out of control to point where he was hallucinating conversations with dead people. A brief stint in rehab and a dose of psychotherapy with guest star Andre Braugher put him back together at the start of this season, but the issue has been largely brushed aside save for a few continuity checks. Braugher was brought back last week for a counseling session, but most of year six has revolved around House becoming Wilson's roommate and trying to accept Cuddy's involvement with a younger rival despite still having feelings for her. These are essentially the same relationship issues that House has been juggling since the first season, and the while the show hasn't become repetitive, it has been treading water for a while now.

Sure, occasionally House will make progress in one area or another - staying clean, getting in Cuddy's good graces, or being supportive of Wilson - and then the wheel turns, and then we come to another season's end, and everything goes to hell again. See House inadvertently cause the death of Wilson's girlfriend. See House hallucinate Cuddy's intervention and capitulation to his advances during a relapse. The show's writing and the procedural formula are strong enough that I've rarely been disappointed with individual episodes, but as a serial it's a terrible tease. Still, Hugh Laurie keeps me coming back season after season, and as much as I want to roll my eyes sometimes at particularly ludicrous plot developments - Taub really thought an open marriage was an option? - I still enjoy it.

And occasionally it will still surprise me. After House lost the patient last night, went home to his secret stash of Vicodin and seemed ready to start the downward spiral all over again, this time Cuddy really did intervene. And this time she really did declare that she loved him and was willing to give a relationship a shot. And for once, the soap-opera smarm didn't make me roll my eyes and mutter darkly about unrealistic expectations in TV relationships. And when she kissed him, they got me. They completely, utterly got me.

"House" will be back in the fall. and I'll be watching.

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