overthinking the idiot box

November 14, 2005

House: Season 1

by Jeff Stone

House! If you have a mysterious, undiagnosable ailment, he's the doctor for you! House! He's a pill-popping cripple! House! His piercing blue eyes mask a deep inner pain! House! He trusts no one, especially his patients! House! He is a mean old crank! House! The one man that my roommates are both attracted to! House! His name reverberates like the clang of a sword! HOUSE!

Ah, House, M.D.. The show came out of nowhere last season, following the monster hit American Idol on Fox and immediately racking up big ratings. Created by TV veteran David Shore and executive produced by big-time movie director Bryan Singer, the show followed the misanthropic Dr. House and his crack team of young, hot, doctors as they solved a new baffling medical mystery each week.

"Yawn," I thought. "Episodic television is dead to me. Why on earth would I want to watch a new medical drama?"
I didn't watch one minute of it. "Yawn," I thought. "Episodic television is dead to me. Why on earth would I want to watch a new medical drama?" I did note with satisfaction that Hugh Laurie was the star, since I was a fan of his from his Blackadder days, but I did wonder how the foppish comedian I admired was going to pull off the role of a tortured American doctor. I heard the good reviews, saw the big ratings, but the entire first season passed me by. Fortunately, the magic of DVD once again allowed me to view a show I might otherwise have missed.

As stated, the show focuses on Dr. Gregory House (Laurie) and his team, including Foreman (Omar Epps) the realist, Cameron (Jennifer Morrison), the overly sympathetic one, and Chase (Jesse Spencer), the rich kid from Australia. The other main characters are House's hard-nosed boss Cuddy (Lisa Edelstein) and House's only real friend, Dr. Wilson (Robert Sean Leonard) who both brave House's attitude with absurd reserves of patience.

Each episode has the same set-up: a patient (usually played by a recognizable celebrity guest) is brought in with bizarre and inexplicable symptoms, House and his team think they've found the solution and administer treatment, the patient seems to get better but then crashes violently (the best one was the woman who vomited a massive amount of blood), and then House and his team find the real solution (usually by figuring out that the patient has been lying or overlooking some key detail), and everything is fine until next week. Oh, and there's also a B-plot involving a wacky clinic patient, such as the senior citizen who gets a crush on House, or the man whose skin has turned orange.

A formula this pat shouldn't work episode after episode but it does, thanks to some sharp writing and a truly magnificent Emmy-nominated lead performance from Laurie. The show rests firmly on his shoulders, and he handles the load with aplomb. One part Sherlock Holmes, two parts Ebeneezer Scrooge, House is a great role on the page, but Laurie manages to infuse him with a vulnerability that's key to the character's likeability. Plus, he delivers the best verbal smackdowns on television. And the American dialect work is spot-on. In fact, in one of the set's short documentaries, Bryan Singer confesses that after seeing Laurie's audition, he thought he was American.

Delightful as he is, Laurie alone can't carry the show indefinitely, so it's nice the supporting cast comes through just as the glow of Laurie's performance is wearing off. In the first few episodes, the characters seems a little too on the nose (The black doctor has a criminal record! The woman doctor is too sensitive!), but later episodes flesh them out a bit more. Epps and Edelstein are spot-on from minute one, and I would like to take this opportunity to say that this is the first time I've ever found Robert Sean Leonard appealing. Morrison and Spencer aren't as stellar, but they get the job done.

While the show is extremely episodic, a few subplots do start to develop as the season progresses. Cameron's crush on House is an ill-advised idea to start with, but it's handled about as well as it could be. An arc involving Chi McBride as a billionaire with a grudge against House is particularly involving, especially when McBride forces House to fire one of his team. But the show is largely episode-by-episode, which occasionally results in stellar entries like "Three Stories," aka "House's Secret Origin Episode," in which we learn how House got both his limp and intense distrust of people (particularly the ladies).

The DVD set is handsomely packaged, and makes the smart move of making its discs double-sided, so that the entire 22-episode season fits on three discs, making a much less cumbersome edition to your shelf. The extras are largely nonexistent, presumably to rush the DVD's release before the second season began.

House, M.D. isn't a great show, but it's a hugely entertaining and surprisingly engrossing medical drama. Just what the doctor ordered. (Sorry.)

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Return to Season 2, Episode 5.