Sunday, June 03, 2012
Paging Dr. House!
UPDATE: Final installment that completes list of 10 favorite episodes has been posted. You can skip directly to the fourth part by clicking here.
By Edward Copeland
On May 21, the television series House (I refuse to use that blasted M.D. in the title — no one does anyway) ended its eight season run. I planned to do a suitable tribute along with a list of my 10 favorite episodes later in the week. I felt no need to rush my piece — no time-sensitive projects loomed on my calendar and I managed to get a review of the finale posted the day after — so I thought I'd earned the right to let it ferment before allowing the world a chance to read it. Unfortunately, as I prepared the piece with care, my body began to weaken from some sort of bug so I got less done and it did begin to bump up against other projects so I finally had to bite the bullet and get this out there — then a series of violent thunderstorms combined with my laptop suddenly acting flaky bumped against my longest, most exhausting doctor's appointment just as I neared completion. I kept feeling puny — sometimes sleeping most of a day away. Then I got pissed and decided I would finish this, starting by sending the two completed portions out ASAP. (The 10 favorites will begin in the second part). I owe it to the show, the character, Hugh Laurie and most of the cast. I wish this had turned out better, but the fates seemed aligned against it, but here it is, warts and all. I also wanted the thought that occurred to me while contemplating this tribute finally out in the universe (if anyone else posited this theory before, I apologize because it never crossed my path). I already miss Laurie and the creation he embodied for eight seasons, a character with a secure spot on the list of all-time great television characters. That ill-mannered, tell-it-like-it-is, Vicodin-addicted, crippled, socially maladjusted genius never failed to entertain me (even though the series that contained him hadn't accomplished that consistently for several seasons). As noted repeatedly and endlessly, House basically reimagined Sherlock Holmes in a medical setting, with Robert Sean Leonard's Wilson serving as his Dr. Watson. However, the more I reflected on Gregory House, the more I noticed that it's a different detective with whom he shares more striking similarities.
The detective that I saw signs of in Gregory House and vice versa (though not a 100 percent match — except for a brief separation, Pembleton had a happy married life) received his induction in that great TV character hall of fame back in the 1990s. When this parallel punched me in the face as I began this tribute, I believe the behind-the-scenes team at House must have had this thought in mind when they cast Andre Braugher as House's psychiatrist, Dr. Darryl Nolan, during his stay at Mayfield Mental Hospital since Braugher brought Baltimore homicide detective Frank Pembleton to life on Homicide: Life on the Street. I also think we can rule out coincidence as a factor because of Paul Attanasio, Attanasio served as an executive producer for all eight seasons of House. He also created Homicide: Life on the Street and wrote its first episode, “Gone for Goode,” basing Frank and the other characters on real Baltimore homicide detectives depicted in former Baltimore Sun crime reporter David Simon's nonfiction book Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets, before Simon turned to television himself. If you don't believe me, let's compare the detective and the doctor in more detail.
FELTON: Amazing. Life is amazing.
FELTON: This must be a mistake. Am I actually going on a routine call with Frank Pembleton?
PEMBLETON: You're right. It's a mistake.
FELTON: Frank Pembleton only works the big investigations. This is just some dead guy.
PEMBLETON See what happens when I come into the office?
FELTON: Imagine — handling a routine call with Detective Frank Pembleton.
PEMBLETON: I'm slumming.
HOUSE: "See that, they all assume I'm a patient because of the cane."
WILSON: "Then why don't you put on a white coat like the rest of us?"
HOUSE: "Then they'll think I'm a doctor."
House might enjoy staying away from his patients as long as he can, but he isn't bashful about boasting about his successes with a blurted, "I rock!" or some equivalent just as Pembleton similarly brags to rookie Detective Tim Bayliss (Kyle Secor), now his unwelcome partner, about what he will see in the infamous Box, where they interrogate murder suspects. "What you will be privileged to witness will not be an interrogation, but an act of salesmanship — as silver-tongued and thieving as ever moved used cars, Florida swampland, or Bibles. But what I am selling is a long prison term, to a client who has no genuine use for the product," Pembleton proclaims. Needless to say, both men lived to solve puzzles, the major difference comes from what motivates the detective and the doctor. House figures out the puzzle for the puzzle's sake, but Frank puts the mystery to an end because he feels as if the responsibility to speak for those murder victims who can't rests with him. The reason Pembleton believes this is his duty brings him closer to House in yet another way. While House makes no secret of his atheism, Pembleton hasn't gone that far, but he doesn't hide his anger at God, who the Jesuit-educated detective thinks no longer watches or cares about his creations. Pembleton's loss of faith runs so deep that he refuses to step inside a church. While Pembleton's character lacked an infirmity akin to House's leg when Homicide began, but he suffered a stroke at the end of the fourth season that he necessitated a recovery. (Well acted, as always, by Braugher, but why give your best character whose greatest attribute comes from his use of language impairment of that gift?) Finally, though Pembleton wasn't in charge of the one in the squad room, white boards played key roles in both shows.
The two shows almost followed similar paths in other ways as well. Both produced three nearly flawless seasons and fourth seasons that continued to offer enough rewards to earn viewer fidelity worthwhile — then both series bore the signs that they'd overstayed their welcomes. The cases, be they murder or medical, ceased to hold our interest as they once did, and constant cast changes made each new season look as if the Princeton-Plainsboro Teaching Hospital (or the Baltimore homicide department) underwent extreme makeovers during the summer hiatus. (Each show had its annoying new additions too — Olivia Wilde's Thirteen on House; Jon Seda's Falsone on Homicide.) In the end, Wilde must have frustrated the show's producers as much as viewers, being absent for most of the seventh season and only present for four or so episodes of the eighth so she wouldn't miss out on once-in-a-lifetime acting opportunities such as Tron: Legacy, Cowboys & Aliens and The Change-Up. Granted, Amber's death resulted in some compelling episodes such as "House's Head" and "Wilson's Heart" as well as when Anne Dudek returned to play Cutthroat Bitch as one of House's hallucinations. Still, wouldn't most fans willingly give those episodes up if it meant that House had fired Thirteen instead and Amber had joined the team? Awful decision on someone's part. I heard some people complain about Peter Jacobson as Taub, but I always liked him and if Kal Penn (Kutner) decides he wants to take a huge pay cut to work for the White House and what he believes in most strongly, you hardly can fault him for that. Of the final two additions for season eight, Charlyne Yi's Dr. Chi Park proved to be interesting and funny from the moment she showed up. On the other hand, Odette Annable's character turned out to be such a nonentity that I had to look up her character's name. (Dr. Jessica Adams. Adams rings a bell, but does anyone remember her being called Jessica?) When she showed up with a new hairdo, I didn't immediately recognize that she'd been the doctor in the prison episode. However, though I liked Jacobson, Penn and Yi, no chemistry worked as well as the original cast (which, though I said it immediately afterward, made the ending all the more incomplete without the presence of Lisa Edelstein as Cuddy. I had nothing against Amber Tamblyn's brief role, but I didn't need closure with Masters. Cuddy's absence left a giant gaping hole in the finale.)
That's why, when I think most fondly about my favorite episodes of House, that my memory inevitably returns to those first three initial seasons. While House, at its core, presents mysteries in the form of medical stories, even in the early seasons and the occasional interesting one that would pop up in later seasons, the puzzle might have been what kept House interested but for the viewer, the regular characters grabbed our attention and earned our loyalty to the show. Sure, Jesse Spencer and Jennifer Morrison continued to be on the show, but once Chase and Cameron left the team, it wasn't the same. This wasn't a series like Law & Order where the procedure proved pivotal to the show and it new cast members could be plugged into roles without harming the series. What a testament not only to Hugh Laurie's brilliance and David Shore's for inventing the character of House in the first place, but the magical chemistry between Laurie, Robert Sean Leonard and Lisa Edelstein. Omar Epps, Morrison and Spencer fit well in those first three seasons as well, but when they came back to the team, some of that magic had vanished through no fault of the performers. How many times could Foreman reasonably quit or threaten to quit? The early elements that made Cameron fascinating — such as the desire to save everyone, especially House — seemed to vanish. What made for an initially interesting idea of Chase choosing to kill the genocidal dictator played by James Earl Jones faded from everyone's memory too fast. That's why it was funny when Cameron returned in the Season 6 episode "Lockdown" to have Chase sign divorce papers and the hospital gets locked down because of a missing infant, trapping the soon-to-be ex-spouses together. "You had a conversation with House, and came back, informed me I had been forever poisoned by him, and started packing," Chase told her, explaining his version of their breakup. "Interesting how your story leaves out the part where you murdered another human being," Cameron replied. As far as I can remember, the incident went unmentioned for the remainder of the series. House's reaction actually could be taken as out of character. When he figures out what happened and he and Chase talk, House says, "Better murder than a misdiagnosis." He advises Chase seek some help, but that's it. When Wilson planned to give a speech endorsing euthanasia, he intervened to save his friend's career. Back in the Season 2 episode "Clueless," he had the wife secretly poisoning her husband to death with gold arrested. He even called the police on one of the potential team candidates, Dr. Travis Brennan (Andy Comeau), after he told him to quit for purposely making a patient sicker with polio-like symptoms to try to fund research for his idea that high doses of Vitamin C would eradicate polio in the Third World. Granted, Chase killed a dictator who ordered genocide, but the Aussie doc, who once entered a seminary, eventually seemed free of any guilt over his act and Foreman bore no regrets about covering it up and even gave House's old job to Chase after House "died." Enough about the series' failings and parallels between House, Pembleton and their shows. This piece celebrates what House did well.
As I mentioned in my brief farewell to the show prior to the airing of the finale, I came to House late. The show hooked me in a setting where you'd think a series involving medical crises wouldn't prove amenable. Despite the odds, my habitual viewing of House started while imprisoned in two hospitals for three-and-a-half months in summer 2008. Often the only palatable programming on the room's TV turned out to be the endless marathons of House episodes that USA ran. Other than Scrubs, which I counted more as a comedy than a medical drama in spite of serious moments, I hadn't watched any new medical shows since my beloved St. Elsewhere went off the air in 1988. (I admit to watching a single episode of ER, but that's simply because Quentin Tarantino directed it.) Honestly, that much of a line shouldn't be drawn between House and Scrubs because most everything I enjoy on television and in movies tends to contain some comedy or it loses me quickly (and, in its own way, Scrubs touched on reality more than House simply by addressing the issues of billing and insurance). That's why House proved to be such a comfort to me during my long hospital imprisonment. I identified with Gregory House as my personal horror story dragged on. I didn't have a pain pill addiction, but I confess to appropriating parts of his attitude when necessary to get what I wanted and to put idiots in their place. I also enjoyed watching those marathons in the first hospital, a Catholic "not-for-profit" hospital that charged ridiculous fees (A 72-year-old woman was shocked to find she'd been billed for labor and maternity costs) and had the worst TV channel selection that thankfully included USA but only included one cable news channel — Fox. Enjoying my role as asshole, I told them that could violate their tax-exempt status as a religious-affiliated institution by seemingly taking political sides and come January, a new sheriff would be in the White House and I'd feel forced to report them. They kept bribing me to try to shut me up. I got a DVD player. They hooked up a laptop. Thank you, House. Since his exit leaves the prime time landscape with one less openly atheist on TV and the remainder exist on shows I don't watch, a clip of some of his best lines concerning religion.
It surprised me when I discovered House to see Bryan Singer's name in the credits as one of the executive producers. I knew him as a film director, most of whose films had left me cold until he made the first two X-Men movies. He also directed the House pilot episode, "Everybody Lies," which, like most first episodes, gets bogged down in exposition and character introductions that prevents it from soaring. Singer also helmed the third episode, "Occam's Razor," and by then House's slide into a comfortable groove nearly was complete. Creator David Shore wrote "Occam's Razor" and, like nearly every episode of those early seasons, it came full of memorable dialogue. Two choice selections courtesy of House himself: "No, there is not a thin line between love and hate. There is, in fact, a Great Wall of China with armed sentries posted every twenty feet between love and hate."; "What would you prefer — a doctor who holds your hand while you die or one who ignores you while you get better? I suppose it would particularly suck to have a doctor who ignores you while you die." Then House responses to Wilson and Cameron.
WILSON: That smugness of yours really is an attractive quality.
HOUSE: Thank you. It was either that or get my hair highlighted. Smugness is easier to maintain.
CAMERON: Men should grow up.
HOUSE: Yeah, and dogs should stop licking themselves. It's not going to happen.
CAMERON: Brandon's not ready for surgery.
HOUSE: OK, let's leave it a couple of weeks. He should be feeling better by then. Oh wait, which way does time go?
Those examples don't show what made the original cast such a miracle of casting chemistry — while Laurie certainly ranked at the top of the heap in the humor department among the performers, the others didn't merely act as his straight men. The entire ensemble contributed to the comedic elements of the show as well. I think that lies behind why so many fans had such a negative reaction to Olivia Wilde's Thirteen — she just wasn't funny. Peter Jacobson's Taub and Kal Penn's Kutner were funny. Charlyne Yi's Park garnered laughs from the moment she joined the show. Even Odette Annable's (what was her name again?) Adams had her moments. Anne Dudek's Amber — I don't think I have to elaborate on her comic gifts whether her character had a pulse or afterward. Returning to Bryan Singer for a moment, at least his sense of humor extends to himself. The Usual Suspects, the film that first gained Singer attention as a director, was an incredibly overrated film as far as I was concerned. Apparently House agreed, at least in the fifth season episode "Joy to the World" written by Peter Blake, who co-wrote the series finale with Shore and Eli Attie. "Why don't you hang out in the video store and tell everyone Kevin Spacey's Keyser Söze? And by the way, that ending really made no sense at all." While the show's ability to make me laugh definitely drew me in during my time of need, by no means am I trying to slight the emotional impact that it routinely delivered as well. The series portrayed all its characters as fallible — cumulatively almost as much as House himself. Though House almost always solved the puzzle, that didn't mean he'd always save the patient.
The fourth episode of Season 1, "Maternity," turned out to be one of the most serious episodes as House noticed first a mystery infection sickening all the newborn babies. The episode, the first Peter Blake wrote for the series, did allow time for some levity, mostly involving a ditzy clinic patient named Jill (Hedy Burress) who can't believe she's pregnant because she had an implanted birth control device. Even worse, she also cheated on her husband Charlie. House advises that she just tell Charlie (Dwight Armstrong) that the baby belongs to him, but she drags Charlie in during the crisis for a "mono" test so House can check paternity. When everything turns out well, Jill asks House to handle all her prenatal care and delivery, which he naturally refuses. Jill tells him she feels as if she owes him a present of some kind. "Sometimes the best gift is the gift of never seeing you again," House replies. The bulk of the episode though concerned the serious storyline and House stayed focused and serious as he fought with administrators over what they should try to solve the puzzle. We gained more insight into Cameron's character. Wilson dropped one laugh line as he saw House examine a sick baby and said, "I'm still amazed you're actually in the same room with a patient." "People don't bug me until they get teeth," House replies. Early on in the crisis, he blames his entire profession for creating the environment that allows something like this to happen. "This is our fault. Doctors over-prescribing antibiotics. Got a cold? Take some penicillin. Sniffles? No problem. Have some azithromycin. Is that not working anymore? Oh, got your Levaquin. Antibacterial soaps in every bathroom. We'll be adding vancomycin to the water supply soon. We bred these superbugs. They're our babies. And they're all grown up and they've got body piercings and a lot of anger." "Maternity" marked the series' arrival as a polished product — and as compelling and great as this episode is, it didn't come close to making my cut for my 10 favorite episodes, which will come at the end of the concluding post.