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Living in a ‘House’ built for one

Fox’s new hit medical drama is the anti-‘E.R.’. By Wendell Wittler
/ Source: contributor

Let's get it over with: There's a new doctor in the House, and though he never makes house calls, he's seen in millions of homes each week, and his creators insist they didn't come up with the name for its punning possibilities.

Officially, the name of  Dr. Gregory House, on Fox's Tuesday medical drama "House," is an indirect homage to Sherlock Holmes, a diagnostic detective with at least as colorful a personality as the fictional sleuth. At least he's not related to the last semi-successful show about a medical genius: Doogie Howser.

There's a long TV tradition of medical shows about the exploits of a star doctor, from Ben Casey and Dr. Kildare, through Marcus Welby and that illegitimate child of "M*A*S*H," "Trapper John, M.D." All of these doctors either had an older mentor, or mentored a younger doctor who ended up stealing the show. But it was actually "M*A*S*H" with its ensemble cast that turned out to be the model for medical shows in recent years, from "St. Elsewhere" to "Chicago Hope" to "E.R." to that new batch of interns on "Grey's Anatomy." On doctor shows, there is indeed safety in numbers.

One-man showYou just don't invest too much in any one doctor while watching a show like "E.R." Your favorite might just walk away (like Dr. Ross) or die on you (like Dr. Greene) or go away and come back after everyone's forgotten her (Dr. Lewis). On the other hand, a particularly unlikable doctor will either be dismembered by a stray helicopter blade (Dr. Romano), or they'll find some way to make the character more likable — Dr. Kerry Weaver was the first character on TV ever to be 'softened' by turning lesbian. At least that's what Dr. House would say if he watched "E.R."  instead of daytime soap operas.

Shortly before "House," NBC premiered "Medical Investigation," a show about medical investigators (surprise) with an ensemble cast that seemed to share a time slot with "Third Watch," an ensemble drama about firefighters, cops and several other occupations that somehow all blurred together until both shows were canceled.

In contrast, "House, M.D." (its official title) is all about this guy named House, M.D., V.I.P. and S.O.B. There are other characters on the show, including a trio of young doctors on House's team, but don't expect any of them to become his mentor and end up stealing the show. They, along with everyone else surrounding Dr. House, spend most of their time responding to him, and the rest of their time responding to the Impossible-to-Diagnose Sick Person of the Week, who usually is too ill to do very much acting. The show pulls off a kind of dramatic sleight-of-hand that makes it feel like Dr. House is in every scene when he actually has less face time than most title characters.

Of course, a little bit of Dr. House goes a long way. Anti-social, misanthropic, cynical, abrasive, abusive, smug, there aren't many negative adjectives you could not use to describe him. At least his disdain for the people behind the illnesses keeps him a safe distance from them for much of the show. One of the show's developing cliches is the moment in the last half hour when the patient or next-of-kin asks the show's star "Who are you?" Meanwhile, an ongoing plot device that requires Dr. House to put in shifts at the hospital's community clinic show us just enough of his bad-side manner and bits of black comedy relief that make it perfectly clear that, given too much exposure, he could turn into Ted Danson's sitcom doctor "Becker."

Saving us from that unpleasantry is the talented actor playing Dr. House, Hugh Laurie. who is best known (if he is known at all in the U.S.) for playing upper-class twits in British TV comedies like Bertie in "Jeeves and Wooster" or Prince George in "Black Adder".

But Laurie has been a hard-working actor on both sides of the Atlantic for more than a decade. He came to "House" straight from playing the eighth lead in "Flight of the Phoenix", and most of you reading this right now will be shocked to learn he portrayed the man who adopted the talking mouse in the "Stuart Little" movies (but then, his wife was played by Geena Davis, so it wasn't all bad).

After so many roles that were either totally silly or generically bland, Laurie dives into the Dr. House character with the bravado of a Shakespearean actor with none of the British accent. His physical presence — rumpled, unshaven (and not in a sexy Don Johnson way), one side of his body held up by a cane, his perpetual pain unevenly relieved by his little white pills (does Vicodin pay for product placement?) — plants the needed seed of sympathy in a character who otherwise would be just asking for a well-placed helicopter blade.

Upon close inspection, "House, M.D." is a well-designed package of seemingly unrelated dramatic devices. The "who are you" scenes and comical clinic scenes. The inevitable early misses in diagnosis, most often caused by patients keeping secrets, confirming Dr. House's cynicism. The two or three jarring moments each episode when the camera suddenly takes a thrill ride through the insides of the patient, which may or may not lead to a medical revelation. And House's meddling into the personal lives of everyone around him, for the apparent purpose of pushing them a safe distance away; there's a revelation about at least one character in each episode, and it usually isn't Gregory House.

In less skillful hands, both behind and in front of the camera, "House" could turn into a bloody mess. Avoiding a massive tune-out after "American Idol's" final high-note-held-five-seconds-too-long, and attracting another tier of viewers deeply disinterested in the opinions of Simon and Paula, is one of the biggest accomplishments of this television season.

Some viewers will grow disappointed that Drs. Foreman and Cameron can't steal this show, but Omar Epps and Jennifer Morrison deserve supporting Emmys just for their re-acting. And Hugh Laurie is going to be hard to beat for the Emmy this year — and every year he keeps doing it. And "House" will never be mistaken for an 'ensemble medical drama.' Because then it would be, kind of, sort of, like "Full House."

is the alias of an online writer in Southern California.