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As fall season ends, ‘House’ finally in order

When the “House” fall finale airs Tuesday night on Fox, Dr. Cuddy will force House to make the last cut from his batch of fellowship candidates and name his new team of three.All together now: “Finally!”The process will have dragged itself over nine episodes by the time it is all said and done. It started with a lecture room full of 30 wannabes — at least 80 percent of whom we knew would
/ Source: contributor

When the “House” fall finale airs Tuesday night on Fox, Dr. Cuddy will force House to make the last cut from his batch of fellowship candidates and name his new team of three.

All together now: “Finally!”

The process will have dragged itself over nine episodes by the time it is all said and done. It started with a lecture room full of 30 wannabes — at least 80 percent of whom we knew would never make it — and even included a guest-star stunt that saw House hire Michael Michele of “ER” onto the team on one episode, only to fire her during the next.

While many “House” fans will be happy that the turmoil has passed, it hasn't been without value. Over the past couple of months, the cries of “we want the old team back” and “let's just get this over with,” have given way to comments such as, “I like Thirteen the best” and “I was sad to see Cole go.”

That means it worked, for the most part. The writers boldly shook up the cast before it was necessary, and viewers who were initially outraged at the thought of dismissing House's original team have slowly embraced the newcomers. How many even noticed that Cameron and Chase didn't appear in last week's episode?

But while the ratings remain consistent — averaging about 19 million an episode, about the same as last season — the question of whether “House” has successfully made us care about each of the newbies still depends on which of the newbies we're talking about. “Thirteen” and Kutner seem to have found their places, for wildly different reasons, but Taub and Amber remain ultimately irrelevant. On top of that, the old team of Cameron, Chase and Foreman still need to figure out where they'll live in the renovated “House.”

This season's storylines mostly follow the typical “House” pattern, with the exception of House's impromptu assignment for the CIA, and last week's “Sixteen Candles”-inspired quest for Cuddy's thong. House's field trip to Langley was pretty brilliant as he got a chance to play with some new people and brought one back to Princeton only to ruin her life.

But the hunt for Cuddy's thong stretched the boundaries even beyond what we've come to expect from modern-day hospital dramas. While House's quirky relationship with Cuddy is a beloved part of the series, his introduction of the job candidates into the mix and their efforts to obtain the hospital administrator's underpants — including setting off the hospital sprinkler system — were beyond sophomoric. Even less plausible was the final revelation that Cuddy willingly handed them over.

But it's all been part of House's “Survivor”-style elimination process; he even called the mission for Cuddy's thong an “immunity challenge.” Through all the silliness, the writers have maintained viewers' interest by slowly — very slowly — endearing fans to the new candidates, sometimes to the show's detriment.

Cole became one of the more sympathetic and easily embraced new characters on the show before he was abruptly sent packing last week. We'd learned that he was a devoted single dad, his Mormon background earned him the affectionate nickname “Big Love,” and he had extremely strong principles that would clash well with House.

And, just like that, he was gone.

That's the danger of not knowing which characters will be left standing from one week to the next because now we're potentially left with someone such as Taub, who is one of the least interesting TV doctors in existence. That's no fault of actor Peter Jacobson; he just plays a poorly developed character. Despite uncovering Taub's backstory a couple of weeks ago — that he had to leave his plastic surgery practice because he cheated on his wife with a nurse there and his old partners promised to keep it quiet — viewers have no interest in seeing what happens with him. Taub contributes little substance to the show. He's clumsy, easily duped, short-sighted and superficial. These aren't attributes that make for a whole lot of interesting television on what is an otherwise smart and witty show.

One new character that is pushing the bounds of credibility — but is, so far, staying on the right side of the line — is “Thirteen,” whose real name we'll eventually have to learn. (Right?) Actress Olivia Wilde is bringing just the right amount of mystery, eagerness and sadness to the doctor who we've already seen kill a patient (and his dog) because of a silly mistake and who we now know might have Huntington's Disease, a hereditary condition with no cure that causes physical, cognitive and behavioral symptoms that worsen over time.

Thirteen has never been tested for the disease, saying she prefers not knowing because it inspires her to do things she'd otherwise be afraid to do. But there's a 50 percent chance she inherited it from her mother. House secretly ran a test last week and put the results in an envelope for her, which she didn't open. So now House knows, but she doesn't.

All that combines to make Thirteen at least 10 times more interesting than Amber (Anne Dudek), who remains pretty one-dimensional as the resident “cutthroat bitch” who will do whatever she has to do to get the job. She's a decent doctor, as far as we can tell, but she's been more intent on winning than on showing her medical prowess, leaving viewers to wonder what her motivation would be if she actually got the job.

That leads us to Kutner, who's developed into the wild child — the one who'd sooner take an electrical jolt of his own to save a patient, and who recommended filling a patient with tequila shots to test her liver. Kutner's character falls into the mold fans would expect from Kal Penn, who is best known for playing Kumar in “Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle.”

He's a doctor who operates outside normal bounds, who thrives on the most dramatic aspects of the job. Although little else is known about him, he's expected to stick around to bring some comic relief to Princeton-Plainsboro. And, don't forget, in the absurdity of the Cuddy's thong episode, it was Kutner who was revealed to have been one of the two candidates Cuddy wanted to have dumped. The other was Amber, and, at this point, at least one of them will remain a permanent member of the team. That should make for some interesting exchanges in the future.

What still remains to be seen is how the old team will figure into the show's future. Foreman, as viewers saw last week, seems to be in place only to occasionally throw a glare at House and play “The Cuddy card,” meaning he'll just speak up when he sees something happening and he knows Cuddy wouldn't approve. Cameron continues to make only occasional appearances to help the job candidates, but what will she do once the candidates are hired full time? And Chase has become the most pointless series “regular” on television.

Each has his and her own history with House, which makes them rich sources for material. Here's hoping the old team can find its place in the background to provide the type of intermittent but effective appearances that Wilson and Cuddy have mastered in the past three and a half seasons.

Victor Balta is a writer in Philadelphia.