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‘House’ needs to get out of the hospital

Doctor show remains compelling, but could use a multivitamin
Dean Headner / Fox
/ Source: contributor

If I’m suffering from some sort of unpronounceable -itis that has me bent over in pain, I’m making a “House” call pronto. If, however, I’m looking for a television series that understands that it needs to evolve, I’m searching for an alternative provider.

“House” is the most compelling reason to watch anything on Fox that’s not titled “American Idol.” With smart writing and consistently nuanced performances, it’s both a critical hit and ratings winner. But as season two prepares to wrap on May 23, “House” could use a multivitamin.

Viewers have seen plenty of cranky doctors before — William Daniels was so wonderfully miserable as cantankerous heart surgeon Dr. Craig in “St. Elsewhere” that he was nominated for five Emmys and won twice. On “House,” Hugh Laurie’s bad bedside manner ranks up there with Craig’s. The two would make a perfect medical partnership: the offices of Smart Ass and Super Ego. Please fill out your insurance information and medical history before seeing the doctor, and don’t dare question anything they prescribe.

House’s antics have served the show well, but it’s time creator David Shore gives his supporting players something more to do than make consistently wrong diagnoses and stumble over each other’s mistakes.

There’s a reason series like “CSI” and “Without a Trace” score such high Nielsen numbers. In every episode the cases are self-contained, meaning — for the most part -—there’s not a lot of storyline carryover. These procedurals, as they’re referred to in the television business, make great business sense. New viewers don’t feel as if they're trying to play catch-up and aren’t intimidated if they’re tuning in to an episode in the middle of the season. For all the glowing reviews and cult status of “Lost,” is there anyone who would dare check it out now for the first time without never seeing an episode? It's difficult to build a new viewer base with such a dense backstory.

Quit wrapping everything up in one showBut syndication dollars be damned. “House” needs to go beyond wrapping up every case at the end of the alloted hour and, more importantly, stop every supporting player from sublimating their own personalities to please the good doctor.

Tune in to any episode and witness the same old, same old: Seemingly healthy person suffers mysterious massive medical trauma before the opening credits; a reluctant and dispirited House is forced to deal with the new case after the first commercial break; doctors Foreman (Omar Epps), Cameron (Jennifer Morrison) and Chase (Jesse Spencer) squabble over a diagnosis as the patient gets sicker and sicker. Ten minutes before the hour ends, a light bulb suddenly goes off in House’s head and, presto, a correct diagnosis is made. Problem solved. End of episode. Roll credits. Previews of next week’s medical mystery unfold.

The few attempts to move outside this box have brought mixed results. It was hard for viewers to buy the relationship between House and the stunningly gorgeous Sela Ward, who played the doctor's old flame, Stacy Warner. Whatever she saw in him was never defined unless, of course, she was into a serious case of self-abuse at the hands of a callous and uncaring partner.

We’ve been given tidbits of backstory for House's team of eager-to-please docs. In one episode, Dr. Cameron, who lost her husband to cancer, lets her moral and ethical guard down and has a one-night stand with Dr. Chase. It was completely out of character but a wonderful diversion — for both the characters and the audience.

Certainly there doesn’t need to be a parade of sex-crazed doctors sleeping with one another every week — this isn’t “Grey’s Anatomy” — but if “House” strives to be more than a one-note medical mystery show, then it might be time to move the young and eager docs out of the ICU. To find out what’s really ailing patients, House is often sending his team into the homes of dying patients. But what mysteries are found in the abodes of his own colleagues?

Show off Dr. Cameron's personal side more often. Who is she dating? What are the complications of those relationships? Dr. Foreman’s father arrived at the hospital as a patient in a handful of the remaining episodes of this season. This brings up some childhood issues that Foreman’s been grappling with. Delve into them.

And poor Lisa Edelstein. She’s House’s superior but he’s constantly demeaning and abusing her emotionally. Why does she stand for this? If her doctoring skills are as bad as House believes — whenever she makes a diagnoses he immediately dismisses it — why is she seeing patients? Is she an administrator or clinician? Go one way or another.

"House" executive producer Paul Attanasio is one of the best TV writers in the business. His credits include NBC’s masterful cop drama “Homicide: Life on the Street” and he was in charge of ABC’s best ever medical series “Gideon’s Crossing,” (yes, better than “Grey’s”) starring Andre Braugher, that was shockingly canceled after its first season.

So if Attanasio has the time — he’s been busy writing the screenplay for the upcoming George Clooney-Cate Blanchett drama “The Good German” — he has the ability to give “House” a checkup resulting in a clean bill of health for many seasons to come.

It’s often more difficult to ever so slightly tweak a successful show than overhaul a really bad one. Can you imagine the FOX execs’ hue and cry over this? “It’s our best drama. Don’t you dare touch it!”

But here’s hoping Attanasio and Shore have the forward thinking to give “House” a creative transfusion before the patient, thinking it’s in perfect health, slowly decays from peak form, never quite understanding why.

Stuart Levine is a senior editor at Daily Variety in Los Angeles.