LOS ANGELES — When “House” debuted on Fox in the fall of 2004, coverage quickly evolved into two basic story lines: Sherlock Holmes and Hugh Laurie. That the character of medical detective/misanthrope Gregory House was based on the world’s most famous detective was an instant source of rousing geek-joy among those who write about television because, among other things, it allowed us to establish some smarty-pants literary credibility. The same was true with Laurie, who, at the time, was known in the States mostly for playing Bertie Wooster to Stephen Fry’s Jeeves in the British series “Jeeves and Wooster.” Along with the opportunity to wax poetic about Wodehouse, Laurie also offered the rare chance to reference British sketch comedy — “A Little Bit of Fry and Laurie” and “Black Adder” — which brought an added cool quotient.
He was also, from the moment the series debuted to the near final moments of this season’s finale (the actual final moments were embargoed), consistently, and sometimes exhaustingly, brilliant.
After six seasons playing one of the most relentlessly complex characters on television, there’s nothing cultish about Hugh Laurie now. Forget all that fey Brit comedy — he’s ours now.
What’s left, then, is the real story: that for six years Laurie has anchored a show that has consistently been among the top dramas on American TV, is one of the most popular shows in the world and has just had its best season.
Season 6 is often when many dramas start winding down, and indeed, “House” slipped to No. 19 in Season 5, which may be why it came out swinging last fall. From the two-hour premiere, to Monday night’s moving finale, this has been a stellar year. Problems of earlier seasons, which resulted in essentially two supporting casts, have been smoothed out, interpersonal story lines among the characters all make sense, and the sometimes under-used pillars of the show — Lisa Edelstein and Robert Sean Leonard — each got episodes in which their characters, Lisa Cuddy and James Wilson, sang lead.
And in the middle of it all is Laurie, the Pau Gasol of television, keeping the show centered and vital with hard play, a lot of rebounds and an almost savant-like ability to focus on the next move.
Yet to hear him tell it, he is the world’s most passive creature who simply takes the pages that are handed him by “House’s” team of brilliant writers and attempts to do them justice.
This is, of course, nowhere as easy as it sounds. It is also a very specific creative decision.
“I’m like a goldfish,” he says, speaking via cell phone from New York, “although goldfish are enigmatic creatures, so there’s really no way of knowing what they’re actually thinking, of course. ... But,” he says, collecting himself from the fishbowl, “I’m about the execution — what is the best way to make this scene as funny, touching, disturbing as it can be. Because I think the actual ‘what’ that happens is less important than the ‘how.’ “
He is speaking from the set of “The Oranges,” in which he plays a romantic-ish lead opposite Leighton Meester. It’s his first feature film since taking on “House.” “My people, who actually is one person, is there to look out for the long term and said, ‘It’s time to spread your wings,’ so I started reading scripts, and this was the best one I read.”
Not that any, he hastens to add, were as good as a single episode of “House.” “And you can quote me on that.” Since the beginning of the show, he has steadfastly handed most of the credit for “House’s” success to creator David Shore, executive producer Katie Jacobs and their team.
Any attempts to discuss the evolution of the show or his character leads him inevitably back to Shore and Jacobs and their ability to think big while leaving plenty of room for small.
“Ideas are 10 a penny. It’s the execution that’s the hard thing to do. House is standing up against a tide of sentiment and emotionalism over reason that threatens to engulf this world. When you think about it, a rationalist, a man of science and reason, is in a pretty lonely position.”
So unlike other stars of successful shows, Laurie says he doesn’t exercise his executive producer credit very often, doesn’t pull Shore or Jacobs aside with thoughts about the direction of House’s sobriety or his love life.
“I think when people do that, it has something to do with an underlying dissatisfaction — ‘I want my character to be more this or that, I want him to be cooler.’ I haven’t felt the need to heckle the driver. Take it as a sign of my passivity or my contentment. Or my being a goldfish. I plead the goldfish.”
Which is one reason it took him six seasons to direct an episode — this year’s “Lockdown.”
The other reason, he says, was sheer exhaustion. Until this season, Laurie was in almost every scene of every episode. “House,” unlike its cable brethren, typically has 24 episodes, so that’s a lot of scenes. And if Ginger Rogers did what Fred Astaire did backward and in heels, Laurie does what other stars do in an accent that is not his own and with the character’s bum leg. Constant pain is a central part of House, which requires a lot of energy to play (and also probably makes Laurie legally ineligible for Botox or facial cosmetic surgery of any kind.)
“I was drained from the work,” he says. “A star of another series ... told me once that after a 12- or 14-hour day, he would drive home at 100 miles an hour and figure, ‘Well, I’ll either get home very fast or I’ll crash, and either one is fine,’ and I understood completely.”
“House” has always been remarkable in its willingness, indeed its determination, to perpetually reinvent itself. At the end of Season 3, House’s original team members were fired or quit, and Season 4, which was interrupted by the writers strike, was essentially a contest to replace them, and Season 5 managed to juggle things like a few too many cast members, death, divorce and ghostly hallucinations that tip-toed around but never crossed into the sort of eye-rolling that almost took out “Grey’s Anatomy.”
As tantalizing as a modern-day medical Sherlock Holmes with his “everybody lies” worldview might be, it was Laurie’s performance that drew viewers to “House,” and what made “House” the blueprint for shows such as “The Mentalist” and even “Nurse Jackie.” Shows Laurie, by the way, says he has never seen.
“I never watched ‘Nurse Jackie’ because when it began Edie Falco said she never watched ‘House’ and she said it rather snottily, I thought, so I didn’t watch her show either.”
Laurie’s laughing, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t serious. He is still “House’s” biggest fan, protective of its cast and creators and delighted to hear that someone thinks this was the best season yet.
“It is very reassuring,” he says. “Because a show can change as it ages, and the other thing that changes is the audience. Their attention wanders to the new shiny thing, and that’s difficult.”
So although he can imagine the show ending, he doesn’t want anyone to construe his return to film as a sign that he’s tiring of Princeton-Plainsboro. “I think television is where great drama is happening right now,” he says. “But there is no other show that I’d like to be on, no show that I see and think, ‘Oh, I wish we could do that on ‘House.’ “
Which is good to know, since without an actor like Laurie, there could be no show like “House.”