[23 August 2007]
Put aside for a moment all of the numerous nominations, critical plaudits, and awards that have followed FOX’s mega hit drama House, M.D. since it debut in November 2004. Briefly mute the chorus of praise and disregard the eye-popping weekly ratings. Instead, view the show with the cold and exacting objectivity that its titular character applies to his patients, colleagues, and friends. For it is only here, on a lonely and detached perch, that you begin to realize that House, M.D. should not be nearly as good or deliciously fun as it so often is.
For starters, it is yet another slickly produced medical drama featuring a cast of impeccably dressed and meticulously groomed young doctors suffering at the hands of a brilliant but craggy veteran. Its main character, Dr. Gregory House (Hugh Laurie), is handicapped, drug addicted, and an unrelenting misanthrope. Most episodes follow the disease-of-the-week formula so faithfully that plot points seem less originally conceived and constructed as they do cobbled from obscure medical journals. And did I mention it airs on the FOX network?
So how then, does House, M.D. manage to garner not only popular success but critical approval, as well? By now, even the most casual of television viewers will know the answer: sharp writing and whip-smart acting. In just three seasons on air the absurdly talented duo of creator David Shore and lead actor Hugh Laurie have managed to re-establish the modern medical drama while simultaneously subverting many of its hallowed conventions. For in Dr. House we have a protagonist whose very charm and likeability is intrinsically supported and bolstered by an unrelenting personal abrasion and callousness.
Oddly enough, at the beginning of the third season we find Dr. House in the unfamiliar emotional territory of feeling healthy and (relatively) happy. Following up from season two’s fantastic cliffhanger, which saw House shot, nearly dead, and hallucinating, this new season opens with a recovered Dr. House full of energy and vigor. An experimental procedure has healed him of his terrible leg pain and he is running – and smiling, no less – like a man reborn.
Naturally, this lighter, happier, and healthier version of House is short-lived and the pain soon comes back to rob him of his mobility and reinvigorate his natural acrimony. In the fifth episode (“Fools for Love”), David Morse is introduced as Detective Tritter, a cop rudely treated by Dr. House when under his care as a patient at the hospital. Seething with anger, Tritter becomes obsessed with seeing House jailed for his overly enthusiastic use of Vicodin. This multi-episode storyline explores the deepening of House’s bitterness and leaves him increasingly distracted and alone.
Strangely, a certain torpor seeps into the show as House’s troubles, both legal and physical, intensify. True to form Dr. House remains gleefully defiant, contrarious, and acerbic, but there is a lack of direction and loss of momentum in many of these early episodes. As with past seasons, the writers seem to struggle with the pacing of extended narratives and, as a result, we are left with sub par episodes that quickly lose interest. While the Tritter storyline yields several interesting moments and clever insights, ultimately, this story arc feels belabored and without consequence.
Thankfully, when the Tritter plotline concludes House, M.D. gains a new impetus during the second half of the season. Standout episodes include “Insensitive”, where House treats a girl who can’t feel pain, and “The Jerk”, which features a 16-year-old chess prodigy who is more than House’s equal in terms of self-centered annoyance. Noteworthy guest turns by John Larroquette (“Son of a Coma Guy”), Joel Grey (“Informed Consent”), and Dave Matthews (“Half-Wit”) also feature as highlights of the third season.
For all of its vaunted subversion of established television tropes (specifically with regard to character) House, M.D. remains, at its core, an exceedingly traditional procedural show. Backed by a strong but severely underused supporting cast, House, M.D. is at its best when solving its weekly mysteries. The medical cases are often so intricate and their paths to conclusion so detailed that even upon repeat viewings individual episodes often retain much of their initial thrill.
The weekly rotation of new patients admitted into Princeton-Plainsboro Teaching Hospital (and their individually bizarre medical histories) has always served as a platform to mark and inform the complexities inherent in House’s character. This not so subtle writerly device is a convenient way to shade in certain aspects of Dr. House’s character without having to defiantly draw the outside lines. In season three, key revelations are made concerning House’s childhood and his past relationship with Dr. Cuddy (Lisa Edelstein) but, as always, there is no lingering around for further insight.
Rather, the writers’ focus in season three was on House’s increasing isolation as he struggles to accept change. House has always pushed the boundaries of personal relationships – believing that the only way to test the strength of someone is by (repeatedly) tearing them down and seeing if their foundation is solid enough to be rebuilt. For that reason, the character of Dr. Wilson (Robert Sean Leonard) has always functioned as House’s gentle yet willful sparring partner; the one man with enough measured humor, patience, respect, and detachment to confront House. By season’s end, however, even Wilson’s interceding efforts can’t prevent House from isolating those closest to him.
The season finale finds House seemingly more comfortable with the inevitably of change, but it comes at the cost of losing his medical team. The resignations of both Dr. Foreman (Omar Epps) and Dr. Cameron (Jennifer Morrison), and his subsequent firing of Dr. Chase (Jesse Spencer), leave House (and the audience) with many unanswered questions. Is his trusted team really gone? Can House accept the change in personal dynamics if they return to the hospital as equal-standing colleagues rather than his subordinates? What new, freshly scrubbed doctors are willing to take on the unique abuse that comes part and parcel with being apart of House’s team?
If there are any answers to those questions we will, necessarily, have to wait until fall when the fourth season debuts. In the meantime, the recent release of House, M.D. - Season Three on DVD allows fans to catch up on the series thus far. The DVD comes packed with the usual grab bag of extras: select episode commentary, behind the scenes featurette, blooper reel, etc. There is nothing especially insightful or remarkable in these supplemental materials, which is a shame considering the amount of talent behind the cast and crew of House, M.D.. All the same, these extras provide brief entertainment and diversion when plowing through the entire season of 24 episodes.
More than in years past, this third season of House, M.D. revealed the stark contrast of the show’s strengths and weaknesses. It is no secret that without Mr. Laurie’s prodigious gifts as a performer House, M.D. would, most likely, be yet another generic medical drama quietly filling out its spot on the network roster. Too often the writers seem to take advantage of this fact by relying more on the delivery of their script by their actors than with the strength of the content. Too often during season three interesting subplots (the budding “romance” between Drs. Cuddy and Wilson, a young girl obsessed with House) are initiated and then quickly forgotten or outright dismissed.
While it is clear that Mr. Laurie’s protean talent can carry even the lamest of scripts, it is a shame that the burden must always fall to him. Rewarding the talented supporting cast (especially the sublime Robert Sean Leonard) with stronger storylines would not only remove them from the dull, mechanized roles they so often fill but would also enliven the overall pace of the show. Exposition may be critical in House, M.D., but too often it comes at the expense of character development.
Luckily, these flaws, while more pronounced in the third season, do not detract from the overall strength and enjoyment of the series. Through clever writing, first rate acting, and an unrelenting subversive humor House, M.D. remains one of the finest hours on network television.