Pity the long-running television show. Any successful program is built upon a rigorous adherence to formula and fidelity to character integrity. The comfort of such a well-formed show can draw a loyal audience, but at some point change is required. Not enough to flummox those who have pledged their fealty (i.e. Fonzie isn’t a grease monkey anymore, he’s a college professor!), but enough to keep the faithful sewn to their seats. Doogie Howser could breakup with his girlfriend Wanda, but once his voice changed and he bought a crazy loft space in Venice Beach, the series was all over but the shouting.
Luckily, Dr. Gregory House is not a teenager. Series creator David Shore has created a compelling character — a miserable, caustic, self-destructive, insulting, brilliant diagnostician — and Hugh Laurie shoulders each misanthropic line of dialogue and limps across the goal line. But the difficulty of such an unlikable character carrying a television series is evident. How can a rotten wretch expect to insult his way into the hearts of the viewing public (please see Don Rickles in C.P.O. Sharkey for corroboration)?
Efforts have been made to introduce suitably rigorous antagonists for House. There was board member Edward Vogler (Chi McBride, Season Two), a billionaire pharmaceutical kingpin intent on firing House from the hospital staff, as well as Michael Tritter (David Morse, Season Three), the hard-nosed police detective intent on jailing House for a humiliation suffered at his hands. Both guests are strong actors who provided suitable foils for Laurie’s intense righteous indignation, but the character of Gregory House is more interesting when given a length of rope. There is nothing more satisfying than watching a genius self-destruct. But for how many seasons?
When it comes to sustained viewing pleasure in this arena, supporting characters are the answer. For the first three seasons, House had three fellows on his team to badger (Omar Epps, Jennifer Morrison, and Jesse Spencer). By the end of Season Three, all had finally left the daily manipulation and abuse or been fired. Soft-hearted hospital administrator Dr. Cuddy (Lisa Edelstein) provides limited dramatic mileage as a distaff Lestrade, and best-friend/conscience Wilson (Robert Sean Leonard) is an engaging Watson, but hardly a theatrical firebrand. Season Four attacks the problem of humanizing this modern-day Sherlock Holmes by giving him new team members to berate…forty or so, that is.
At first viewing, the whittling down of a lecture hall filled with ambitious doctors has the unsettling, anyone-can-go feel of the original All Quiet on the Western Front. As the episodes progress and a new rhythm of one firing by the end of each hour emerges, it starts to feel like an artistic capitulation to the soul-sucking drudgery of competitive reality television. Attempts to joke away the inevitable comparisons (from House conducting a “tribal council” complete with bunsen-burner tiki torches, to Bachelor-style carnation offerings) fail to assuage concerns that a taut drama may be spinning its wheels.
By the time the candidates for the three open spots are slimmed down to half a dozen, (Kal Penn, Peter Jacobsen, Olivia Wilde, Anne Dudek, Edi Gathegi, and Andy Comeau), the rubber hits the road and Season Four starts to feel like a winner. Adding the grist of sharky office politics to the mill of medical mysteries provides riveting television. Even the slow reintegration of House’s original team makes sense and provides an overall sense of things getting back to (dysfunctional) normal.
Then, in a development that even the brilliant House could not foresee, the Writer’s Strike happened. The viewing faithful were robbed of the chance to see House and his new and old teams harmonize. For the second time in this pivotal season, fans were forced to ask whether the show could survive a radical change in direction…that is, a full stop.
The first two episodes that resumed the series after the strike are competent enough stand-alones, but the final two (“House’s Head” and ”Wilson’s Heart”) cap off the season in fine style. The production takes stylistic and narrative chances in these final episodes and again demonstrates why the show is safe in the able arms of creator Shore and fellow executive producer Katie Jacobs: respect for the drumbeat of the procedural formula alongside an appetite for a fresh angle. Existing relationships are examined, pushed to the brink, and then turned upside down.
Work from the series regulars is good across the board, and other than antagonist arcs, this series is happily light on stunt casting. Featured guest stars from this season such as Mira Sorvino (Mighty Aphrodite) and Janel Moloney (West Wing) provide strong performances. The writing is intelligent and distinguishes itself from other medical dramas by using illness and treatment as propellers of plot, and not simply adjunct to the surrounding soap opera (I’m looking at you Grey’s Anatomy).
Extras on the disc are leaner than expected from a season eight episodes short of a full year, but enjoyable nonetheless. In particular, the dissection of a critical bus crash is entertaining. Interviews with the cast are of moderate interest, but provide for a cavalcade of denials with regard to future episodes of the series. No one seems to know where it’s going, and the viewer is better off for it.
And if we’re all lucky, that Doogie Howser cameo I’ve lobbied for will happen in Season Five. That should shake up the team.