If you’re not already watching Fox’s House, you should be. Last season, it was the very best show on U.S. network TV and now, just a couple of weeks into this new season, it looks to be repeating the trick. Of course, it helps that House can boast the best leading actor on TV, Hugh Laurie, as well as the best theme tune (Massive Attack’s “Teardrop”), and the best and funniest writing (for which Executive Producer David Shore won an Emmy).
That’s not to say it’s perfect. Since House is, at base, just another medical show, it’s prone to formulaic plotting. Typically, a guest star will be admitted with a mystery ailment. Dr. Greg House (Laurie) and his team will sit around in a conference room attempting both to solve the mystery and cure the patient. House will be gloriously insulting and witty at the expense of everybody else in the cast. The team’s early efforts will come increasing close to killing the patient. And then in the end, the patient will (usually) be saved. Stir in a little bit of hospital politics and a touch of the cut-and-thrust of interpersonal relationships, and there you have it. But it’s never boring.
The joy of House is in the dialogue, and in Laurie’s outstanding performance. An English actor with a long pedigree, most especially on British TV, Laurie was educated first at Eton and then at Selwyn College, Cambridge where he first met Stephen Fry. His eventual partnership with Fry has been one of the keystones of Laurie’s subsequent career. The pair launched themselves with a clever, very British sketch show, A Bit of Fry and Laurie, and later delivered definitive performances as P.G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves (Fry) and Wooster (Laurie) in a long-running ITV series.
That portrayal and his various Blackadder roles had all but typecast Laurie as an amiable, upper-class English twit. In House, however, he achieves something quite different. Adopting a non-specific American accent that convinced director Bryan Singer that he was a “compelling American actor”, Hugh Laurie brings such a previously unsuspected wealth of charisma and charm to the role of House that I could now watch him read the complete scripts to all five series of Angel without devouring my own liver.
An expert diagnostician (with a double specialty of infectious disease and nephrology), House has a bum leg, a Vicodin addiction (“I do not have a pain management problem. I have a pain problem”) and a seemingly limitless armory of one-liners so sardonically savage that the NRA are campaigning to have them declared illegal. His wicked wit conceals his heart of gold. Probably. Driven by his ego, ethics, and need to solve difficult problems, House sees the physician’s role solely within the context of curing disease, not in judging patients or rescuing them from their lives. The second season premiere of House, “Acceptance”, featured an extremely intimidating LL Cool J as Clarence, an unrepentant death row inmate (House: “Why did you kill your girlfriend?” Clarence: “The bitch stepped out”). House and his team call him “Death Row Guy”. The script gets several laughs out of the moral issues, but does not dodge them.
Dr. Eric Foreman (Omar Epps): Aren’t there better ways of spending our time?
House: Good question. What makes a person deserving? Is a man who cheats on his wife more deserving than a man who kills his wife?
Foreman: Uh. Yeah. Actually, he is.
House: What about a child molester? Certainly not a good guy, but he didn’t kill anybody. Maybe he can get antibiotics, but no MRIs? And what about you? What medical care should you be denied for being a car thief? Tell you what, the three of you work on a list of what medical treatments a patient loses based on the crime they committed, and I’ll review it when I get back.
Throughout the first series, the hospital’s requirement that House work certain minimum hours in its open clinic provided a weekly comedic subplot. In “Acceptance”, Dr. Cameron (Jennifer Morrison) is called on to substitute for her boss at the clinic, and her inability to deal with the inevitable but unfair death of her wholesome white chick patient is juxtaposed to particularly good effect against House’s efforts to save the life of Death Row Guy. Often the naïve conscience of the show, Cameron also serves as one side of a bizarre love triangle. Or is it a quadrilateral? By the third episode of this new series, it is becoming clear that House may or may not have had a thing with his boss Dr. Cuddy (Lisa Edelstein) when they were at college together. Meanwhile his ex-wife Stacey (Sela Ward) has recently signed on as the hospital’s lawyer, and Cameron has crushed early and often on her cranky, crippled boss.
It’s to the great credit of the writers that the lurve thang adds to the mix of relationships and humor that makes this such a special show without ever permitting it to upset the happy balance. As the Emmy voters recognized, the writing on House is exemplary. It’s easy to tell that the actors enjoy their lines, and as this second series progresses, it is becoming clear that the writers have decided to ease the self-imposed restrictions that confined the first series almost entirely within the four walls of the hospital.
In the third episode, “Humpty Dumpty”, the patient with the mystery ailment is Cuddy’s handyman, Alfredo (Ignacio Serricchio), who opened the show by falling off her roof. In exposing and exploring its characters’ lives away from the hospital, House is doing nothing that hasn’t been done many times before but, based on past performance, it is likely to do it better than it’s been done before. Provided the show does not lose sight of its humorous foundations or its central diagnostic model, the apparent expansion in scope can only be for the good.
Quite frankly, the only other way House could get any better would be if the writers created a part for Stephen Fry.