An odd bit of swag arrived via mail the other day, courtesy of the Fox network. Sandwiched between two heavy chunks of acrylic glass was a dark slice of film, no wider than a Post-it note. It was a commemorative X-ray from the set of “House,” the landmark medical series that pulls the plug on its eight-year run Monday night.
When I held the film up to the light, I couldn’t tell exactly what I was looking at (a femur? a clavicle?), but I silently gave props to the Fox publicists for their promotional creativity.
At the same time, I felt so not worthy. “House,” after all, had ceased being appointment television for me in recent years. And though I continued to occasionally check in on the series, I was too often turned off by plots that felt formulaic and contrived.
One thing for which I never lost respect, however, was the scintillating performance of Hugh Laurie as the show’s complete jerk of a title character, Dr. Gregory House. These days, we may take for granted both the actor and the grumpy M.D. he played. But when they arrived on the scene in 2004, they were a startling revelation.
Yes, the so-called antihero had already infiltrated cable TV. Tony Soprano (“The Sopranos”) began his reign of bloody mayhem in 1999, soon to be followed by rogue cop Vic Mackey (“The Shield”), tortured firefighter Tommy Gavin (“Rescue Me”) and ruthless saloon owner Al Swearengen (“Deadwood”), all of whom wallowed in their own brand of darkness and dysfunction.
But network television, which craves larger audiences, was different. You simply didn’t build a show around a highly flawed and essentially unlikable lead character. You wanted someone with wide appeal, someone viewers could sympathize with and root for.
And that was especially true in the medical genre, where kindly, upright citizens such as Marcus Welby set the tone so many years ago. TV doctors were like gods who held the fate of their patients in their hands. A good bedside manner was vital.
But the cantankerous House took a scalpel to the stereotype and cut it to shreds. Here was a pill-popping medical genius who was indifferent to his patients, snubbed authority and was downright nasty to his fellow physicians, including his only real friend, Dr. Wilson (Robert Sean Leonard).
Viewers were shocked. But they were also mesmerized. By its second season, “House” was a Top 10 show.
And our misanthropic doc accomplished it all without the flashy, sensationalistic methods deployed by other irredeemable TV types. Instead of guns and fists, he used brainpower. Instead of violently destroying all obstacles in his path, he solved problems and fixed people. He was the thinking man’s antihero.
It helped that creator David Shore was savvy enough to combine two of TV’s most enduring figures — doctor and detective — into one man at a time when procedural dramas were all the rage. Viewers always love a good mystery. “House” was the “CSI” of medical shows, and its leading man the brilliant Sherlock Holmes of physicians.
But it never would have worked if Laurie, a British import, hadn’t possessed the remarkable skill set to pull it off. A lesser actor would have turned House into a dismal cardboard figure, free of intriguing wrinkles. Laurie brought feeling and nuance to the role.
He could convey so much with just a blink, a wince, a smirk or a crack of the voice. And he led us to believe that somewhere under that gruff and tough exterior was a truly soft heart.
You just needed a really a high-quality X-ray machine to detect it.
Russell Hornsby, who stars as a Portland, Ore., homicide detective in the supernatural cop drama “Grimm,” says fans should brace themselves for some new characters and an “amazing cliffhanger” when the freshman series airs its season finale (8 p.m. Friday, NBC).
Hornsby says that “someone very close” to the show’s leading man, Nick Burkhardt (David Giuntoli), will get hurt and there’s a “real fear that we may lose this person.” Among those new characters is a mysterious Woman in Black, played by guest star Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio.
“I’m excited by it, but nothing about this show surprises me anymore,” says Hornsby. “Our writers come up with the most amazing, crazy, off-the-wall ideas. You wonder how they’ll ever pull it off, but they do.”
Like most NBC shows, “Grimm” is no ratings powerhouse. But it has attracted a rabid core audience and received an early Season 2 renewal back in March. This is Hornsby’s first taste of being part of a fantasy series, and he’s fascinated by just how passionate the fans of the genre are.
“I marvel at how far they can get ahead of the story (via Internet spoilers and speculation),” he says. “They’re very sophisticated, and they’re impatient — sometimes to a fault. I plead with them to be patient with us and just take the ride.”
NBC reportedly plans to give some of its shows, including “Grimm,” an early start in August to take advantage of the promotional oomph provided by the Olympics. That means a shorter-than-usual hiatus. Hornsby and his fellow actors, who wrapped their first season on April 20, are scheduled to resume work in Portland on May 30.
“There’s no rest for the weary, but it’s a good problem to have,” he says. “Like a friend told me: If I had more off time, all I’d do is spend more money and come back broke.”