Chance has put in our way a most singular and whimsical problem, and its solution is its own reward.

— Sherlock Holmes, “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle”

He’s back. After a summer of reruns and reality shows, I can’t tell you how glad I am to welcome House back into my life. Hugh Laurie’s outstandingly charismatic Dr. Greg House doth bestride the increasingly narrow-minded world of network television like a contemporary Colossus.

This even though last season’s House was frequently disappointing. The extended pursuit and persecution of House by Detective Tritter (David Morse), for example, took much more from the show than it gave. Morse did raise the larger issue confronting the series, however. House and Laurie combined tend to overwhelm lesser figures. Throughout the third season, this began to wreak havoc with the already decaying orbits of House’s ineffectual and younger-skewing satellites: Foreman (Omar Epps), Cameron (Jennifer Morrison), and Chase (Jesse Spencer).

Last season, it looked like the show had finally written off its George, Izzy, and Meh: Foreman resigned because he worried about “turning into” House. Chase was fired for having limp hair and being boring. And the unfathomably arbitrary Cameron submitted a last-minute resignation simply because it was a neat thing to do in a finale. It was a shock, in a way, to see the cast so comprehensively slashed and burned, but it also boded well.

Thus the return of all three actors to the cast list for Season Four feels like a betrayal. And since at least two of them appear now to have bigger and better jobs at the Princeton-Plainsboro Teaching Hospital, it may be that the writers are still trying to turn House into Grey’s. But House doesn’t need that sort of cookie-cutter structuring. (Rumour has it, incidentally, that the third “duckling” will be back just as soon as he’s fired from Seattle Grace.)

My life is spent in one long effort to escape from the commonplace of existence.

— Sherlock Holmes, “The Red-Headed League”

The Season Four premiere is called “Alone.” It opens with House rocking out in his office with a new guitar. This isn’t just important because it’s another device that links House to Sherlock Holmes, who played rhythm for Baker Street Irregulars; it’s also a reference to the third season finale when Wilson (Robert Sean Leonard) explained how couldn’t handle change, using his 30-year-old guitar as an example. So here House stands, vintage cream Gibson flying V in his hands, tripping lightly through early Led Zeppelin walking blues and a set of Eddie Van Halen double-handed arpeggios while Cuddy (Lisa Edelstein) tries to sell him on Megan, the only survivor of the collapse of an office building, with symptoms interesting enough for the great medical detective.

House: “I can’t take the case, I don’t have a team.”

Cuddy: “So hire a team.”

House: “What for? I don’t have a case.”

Cuddy: “Have you even interviewed anybody?”

House: “You test drive a car before you buy it. You have sex before you get married. I can’t hire a team based on a 10-minute interview. What if I don’t like having sex with them?”

In response to Cuddy’s threat to put him on bandage-changing duties if he doesn’t take the case, House counter-offers that if he completes the diagnosis within the day, with no team, then Cuddy must agree to leave him alone with his guitar for a week. The game, my friends, is afoot.

My mind rebels at stagnation. Give me problems, give me work, give me the most abstruse cryptogram or the most intricate analysis, and I am in my own proper atmosphere. I can dispense then with artificial stimulants. But I abhor the dull routine of existence. I crave for mental exaltation.

— Sherlock Holmes, “The Sign of Four”

The comparisons between House and Holmes are inescapable. How many times have we seen House diagnose a patient’s entire history from just a glance across an examination room? And what is House’s Vicodin if not an answer to the detective’s cocaine? Holmes, as was perhaps typical of his time, called even his best friend by his last name. House calls everyone by their last names. While I struggle to place the fussily provocative Cuddy within the Holmes canon (unless she’s Lestrade), it’s self-evident that Wilson is House’s Watson. Though Wilson has only roomed temporarily with House and is certainly no amanuensis, he is clearly the most important commentator on his friend’s behaviour and character.

Despite House’s protestations, Wilson believes he cannot function without a team, and resorts to drastic and amusing measures to force his friend to hire one. The eventual resolution of the Mystery of Megan combines with Wilson’s efforts to persuade House that his friends are right: he cannot make bricks without clay. House being House, he turns the interview process into something akin to a reality show.

The second episode of the season sees House confront a lecture theatre full of job applicants, each sporting a numbered runner’s bib, willing participants in an outlandish selection process. At one moment, House encourages the 40 candidates to answer a question, assuring them that he won’t fire them just for getting it wrong. A doctor hazards a guess, and is immediately “fired.” A few minutes later, he fires the entire back row for no reason at all, but then rescinds his decision when he realises that a particularly hot lady doctor was on that row, and fires the next to last row instead.

The selection process is expected to last eight weeks, and we can expect to see plenty of numbers 13 (Olivia Wilde), 6 (Kal Penn), 26 (Carmen Argenziano as a man with a secret), 39 (Peter Jacobson playing Steve Carrell doing a plastic surgeon), and 24 (Anne Dudek as a Cameron who’s read Il Principe and knows exactly where to stick a knife). My money’s on Number 24 taking out the original Cameron before the fourth episode, but that may just be wishful thinking.

While House, Cuddy, and Wilson are as sharp as ever, the new breed are already more fun than the ducklings ever were. I’m glad he’s back. My only concerns are that Number 18, the token black Mormon, will be fired too quickly, and that keeping Epps, Spencer, and Morrison reeks of creative cowardice. Remember that the strongest character in Grey’s, the one who got her own spin-off, was Addison, not a “youthful” intern.

RATING 7 / 10