TV's Best of the Decade: No. 26 -- 'House'
Hugh Laurie anchors the decade's best medical drama, where the diagnosis is almost never lupus
In yesterday's entry, I praised "Weeds" as a show that didn't shy away from pushing and evolving its main characters and premise, taking it to such an extreme that the show today, after five seasons, is almost unrecognizable as the show from the pilot.
Permit me, with today's slot on the list, to reverse field a little and praise a show that has proven that change isn't always mandatory and that even the most formulaic of procedurals can still retain its edge if it happens to be built around one of the best characters and one of the best actors in primetime.
"House" stands at No. 26 on my list of TV's Best of the Decade not because it has reinvented the medical genre or because its serialized aspects keep me on the edge of my seat, but because the pleasure of watching Hugh Laurie's Dr. Gregory House browbeating patients and colleagues alike remains largely unabated after more than 100 episodes.
[More on "House" after the break...]
Though "House" has had 119 episodes, through the great majority of them, it has had only one plot: In a cold open, somebody looks sick. The healthy person next to them, played by an instantly recognizable guest/character actor comes and looks at them. It was a false alarm. The healthy, but recognizable person turns away and instantly either collapses or begins to spew some bodily fluid from an orifice through which that fluid should not be gushing (or something equally gross). Ew! Cue Massive Attack's "Teardrop." Over at Princeton Plainsboro Hospital, Dr. House is saying something sarcastic. One of his underlings mentions the situation from the cold open. House isn't interested. Then he hears that the spewing bodily fluid is a wildly different color from the color the bodily fluid is supposed to be (or something equally gross). He makes a diagnosis. The patient gets worse. His underlings make a diagnosis that House disagrees with. The patient gets worse. House mocks his underlings and makes a new diagnosis. It works! For two minutes. Then the gushing begins again, only worse. House leaves and discusses the week's B-story with Dr. Wilson, having seemingly given up hope. Halfway through the conversation, House stops, realizes that the theme of the B-story was directly related to the medicine of the A-story. He rushes off and diagnoses a disease that no human being in America has contracted since the start of the Industrial Revolution. The patient is cured and vows to live a better life. House says something sarcastic, but we know he's really just protecting his own wounded psyche. Roll credits.
It's not all that different from the rigorous structure that a "CSI" or a "Law & Order" might have, which is why "House" plays well in syndication or in repeats, because it produces the same reassuring lull that those long-running procedurals have. With a visual style established by director Bryan Singer in the pilot and verbal rhythms marshaled by co-creator David Shore and long-time executive producer Katie Jacobs, "House" has always done the procedural aspects so well that fans have often rooted for the show to try to be more than just network TV's best procedural.
What "House" hasn't done so well is introduce long-term arcs. Viewers who complain about the preponderance of stand-alone episodes need to ask whether they'd prefer an awesome standalone episode, complete with disgusting medical peculiarities, trademark House put-downs and a ridiculous and impossible-to-predict late diagnosis, or whether they'd prefer another Vogler. If you'll recall, Vogler was the wealthy bureaucrat played by Chi McBride in the show's first season. That didn't work. It also didn't work when David Morse came on for six episodes as dully wrong cop Michael Tritter. Both McBride and Morse are excellent actors, but their characters wanted to humble House and nobody wanted to see House humbled. And nobody wanted to see House domesticated, which is why even the reliably charming Sela Ward was never going to be anything other than an annoyance during her long arc in the show's second season. I actually liked Michael Weston's Lucas when he first appeared as an equally prickly private eye, but I know I was in the minority and even I haven't liked the way the show has brought Lucas back into the fold this season.
"House" has been better served by the slow evolution of the Good Doctor's relationship with the members of his diagnostic team. While Omar Epps, Jennifer Morrison and Jesse Spencer didn't have clearly delineated characters in the pilot, or even in the early episodes, each actor and each character established a unique chemistry with House, though that chemistry just became part of the formula. Viewers knew exactly how Dr. Foreman would get outraged by House's requests, how Dr. Cameron would become overly emotional involved with every patient and how Dr. Chase would furrow his brow, toss his hair and contribute very little and yet somehow end up being helpful in the end. The disintegration of the original team at the end of the third season would have been a ballsier gambit if the show hadn't kept Chase and Cameron wandering the halls pointlessly for two seasons or if House hadn't spent half a season going through a number of intriguing candidates only to assemble a new team of bland personalities that were interchangeable with the old personalities. If House had chosen Kutner, Big Love and Cutthroat Bitch as his new team, might things have ended up differently for several of those characters? So sad.
Or maybe the blandness was exactly the point behind House's new team. Maybe the writers wanted to show that it didn't matter who you paired with Laurie, because Laurie can act opposite just a large fuzzy tennis ball and be captivating. He can sit in front of a piano and be entrancing. He can throw punchlines off a janitor or a coma patient and be every bit as funny and rakish as he can with Olivia Wilde.
It wasn't like savvy TV viewers didn't know Laurie, but the amount of our preconceptions on this side of The Pond varied based on how many installments of "Black Adder" or "Jeeves and Wooster" or "A Bit of Fry and Laurie" we might have accidentally happened upon. He wasn't an icon for most American viewers, though he arrived on FOX with more than 20 years of television training under his belt. Perpetually unshaven, leaning on a cane and a pill addiction for pain, caustically dismissive of even his closest friends and acidly contemptuous towards his patients, House was a cable-style hero dropped into network primetime. And Laurie make him a rakish charmer to boot, so that we understood why Robert Sean Leonard's Wilson remained his friend and why Lisa Edelstein's Cuddy was so obviously in love with him, even if she didn't know it. To this day, House gets away with saying anything to anybody and, as such, he's a weirdly aspirational figure for anybody trapped in working in an anonymous institutional environment or forced to deal with stupid customers all day. And because we love House, the show's writers have had license to make him worse and worse and to inflict more and more pain on him. He's been shot, electrocuted and nearly killed in a bus accident. He's been operated on, hallucinated and committed himself to a mental institution.
House has gone through Hell and he hasn't changed a bit, exposing the futility of those feeble attempts to bring in outside characters to change him. Since it's always one of House's mantras that people don't change, the writers should have recognized that futility from the start.
If House can't change, what's a writer to do? Well, the "House" team has made excellent use of Very Special Episodes, tinkering for an hour at a time with the show's format. In episodes like "Three Stories" and "One Day, One Room" and "House's Head" or the Super Bowl episode "Frozen" or this season's two-hour "Broken" or even last week's "Wilson," "House" has escaped the formula I illustrated at the beginning and done it beautifully.
Eventually this list is going to get to some shows that actually won Emmys, but "House" is yet another series where, when you look, awards have been strangely elusive. Laurie has two Golden Globes and a pair of TCA Awards, but he's yet to take an Emmy. Somewhat ridiculously, the only actor, supporting or otherwise, to join Laurie on the nomination rolls has been Morse, meaning that the excellent Edelstein and Leonard, plus a dozen worthy patients-of-the-week, have been snubbed. Shore has one win for writing and Greg Yaitanes won for directing, but procedural proficiency is sometimes taken for granted.
I'm pretty confident that next year will be Laurie's Emmy year, something I tweeted only five minutes into watching my screener of the premiere. But I don't need the Emmys to tell me how great Laurie is, nor to remind me of how satisfying a well-told episode of "House" is, even if I know the individual story beats by heart.
That's why "House" stands at No. 26 on my list of TV's Best of the Decade.
Up tomorrow? Play hide and seek with schemers, social climbers and one sick pony.