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Viewers feel Dr. House’s pain

Pain sufferers can relate to the Fox doctor's predicament
/ Source: The Associated Press

As an abrasive anti-hero, Dr. Gregory House is hardly unique. But the sort of rotten attitude he radiates is typically the product of a tortured psyche — think Andy Sipowicz’s wrath on “NYPD Blue.”

“House” is quite a different matter. One of the season’s unlikeliest new hits, it’s a medical drama about a misanthropic doctor and the pain that racks his body, not his mind.

Perhaps no TV protagonist has been stamped so profoundly by a physical affliction. Walking with a limp, his cane supporting his bum right leg, House is constantly hurting. Pain is part of his persona.

So is drug abuse. He overmedicates on Vicodin.

“I do NOT have a pain MANAGEMENT problem. I have a PAIN problem,” he once snarled at a waiting room of flustered patients. “But who knows? Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I’m too stoned to tell.”

House wasn’t looking to win these patients’ confidence. He considers their routine complaints a waste of his time. At Princeton-Plainsboro Teaching Hospital, he generally ducks the clinic’s day-to-day chores. What he holds out for is any case that’s baffling enough to engage his world-class diagnostic skills.

Meanwhile, people skills be damned! As brilliantly portrayed by Hugh Laurie, House is snide, arrogant, a little wild-eyed and less than professional in appearance (he flat refuses to wear his prescribed white coat).

So how come a recent poll named him the sexiest doctor on TV — by a wide margin? Maybe this show was just fated to succeed.

Of course, it doesn’t hurt that “House,” airing at 9 p.m. ET Tuesday on Fox, benefits from its hit lead-in, “American Idol.”

Pain familiar to viewers
A less obvious factor: House’s hardship is all too relatable for viewers.

“Approximately 1 in 5 Americans suffers from chronic or recurrent pain,” reports ABC News, which was partnering with USA Today this week in a project called “The Fight Against Pain.”

Time magazine addressed “The Right (And Wrong) Way to Treat Pain” in a January cover article, noting, “Perhaps the biggest reason so many patients suffer more than they should is the tendency among doctors and patients alike to see pain as a mere sideshow.”

Well, “House” sure doesn’t see pain as a sideshow. Here, pain is fetishized and, despite the Vicodin, unyielding. It’s the main event.

But “House” creator David Shore dismisses any idea that his series was out to capitalize on pain as the culture’s next big thing. He was just looking for a storytelling device. “We wanted a character who was unpleasant,” he explains. So he made House the victim of a crippling, embittering blood clot.

“As originally conceived, we had him in a wheelchair,” Shore recalls. “Fox said, ‘No way.’ They were right. It works better to show him at the same level as everybody else, but in pain with every step.”

With House, there’s the pain of recognition for any viewer who was ever plagued by so much as a headache or a muscle strain. But how to maintain the right balance with this damaged champion, keeping him not just relatable, but also bearable? It’s tricky, Shore allows. Make House too harsh and the audience flees, while “if we make him too nice, we destroy what’s interesting about the character.”

House turns teacherSo far, so good — particularly on the next show. Written by Shore, this next-to-last episode of the season departs from the customary format (lifesaving remedy found just in time) for an extraordinary hour framed in a lecture hall, where, under protest, House substitutes for an ailing prof.

As he tangles with the students in this diagnostics class, he will shed light on his own condition — how, through bungled treatment and tragic choices years before, he was left in his impaired, tormented state.

He also reconnects with someone from his past (guest star Sela Ward in the first of several appearances spilling into next season). A woman who seems to have broken House’s heart, Stacy Warner comes begging him to treat the mysteriously sick husband he didn’t know she had.

“I KNOW you’re not too busy,” Stacy says. “You avoid work like the plague. Unless it actually IS the plague.” “I’m not too busy,” House concedes — “but I’m not sure I want him to live.”

However sarcastic and self-indulgent, House, as usual, is painfully honest. And however much a jerk, he’s a jerk who believes morality is measured not by attitude, but results. He’s got no cause to apologize. He saves lives.

“This is a guy who doesn’t have time for niceness or pretense,” says Shore. “He wants to get to the stark truth as quickly as he possibly can.”

Why not? Even when the truth hurts, House was hurting first.