Thursday, May 26, 2005

The Best New Show On TV

With due respect to shows like Desperate Housewives and Lost, the best new show on American broadcast television in the 2004-2005 season has undoubtedly been House, or to give it its full title House M.D. (That incidentally is how it appears in the main title, with the M.D. so tiny that unless you are particularly observant you'd never notice it.) It may also provide definitive proof that the Parents Television Council is right about the V-Chip, but I'll get into the reason I say that shortly.

"House" is Dr. Gregory House and he's unusual, both for a TV doctor and a real doctor. Most TV doctors are (and have always been) surgeons or worked in emergency rooms. They look sharp in their white lab coats and heroic in their surgical greens. House is the head of the "Department of Diagnostic Medicine" at Princeton-Plainsboro Teaching Hospital (based on the University Medical Center in Princeton). He usually looks worse than an unmade bed in a rumpled sports coat, an open collared shirt and running shoes. He doesn't do surgery and wouldn't wear a lab coat to save his job. He is, in fact an unlikely protagonist; an ill-tempered, sarcastic, misanthrope with a disdain for the mundane and a love for solving puzzles. He'd rather watch soap operas, and has to be threatened to get him to do time in t he hospital's clinic. He's walks with a cane thanks to a misdiagnosed embolism in his leg which destroyed much of the muscle tissue while leaving him in great pain. He's addicted to Vicodin, a fact that he admits, but refuses to enter a rehab program because his addiction has not impaired his ability to do his job. In the hands of the wrong actor the character could be such a turn-off that it would drive viewers away. In the hands of British actor Hugh Laurie (probably best known as a comedian, for his work in Blackadder and earlier in Jeeves and Wooster with his friend Stephen Fry) House's bad qualities are tempered with a dark humour and a basic humanity in addition to his brilliance as a diagnostician which, if it does nothing else arouses our sympathy.

The roots of House are apparent - if somewhat obscurely - in his name. The character is based very much on Sherlock Holmes (whose name can be pronounced "homes" - Holmes=House) which is only fitting since Arthur Conan Doyle based Holmes on one of his instructors at the Edinburgh Medical School, Dr. Joseph Bell. Bell had the ability, exhibited by Holmes and by House, of being able to tell things about a person based simply on looking at him or her. In one notable exchange in the series House tells a man, whose skin has turned orange in colour, that his wife is having an affair "because you're orange, you moron, and she hasn't noticed it." It goes further however. Holmes believed implicitly that everybody lies, or at least withholds the truth; House believes that everybody lies and finding out what the lies are and why they are lying is an important clue in the diagnostic process. His diagnostic process goes back even further to Edgar Allan Poe's character August Dupin. Dupin said (and this is often, wrongly, ascribed to Sherlock Holmes) "eliminate the impossible and whatever remains, regardless of how improbable, is the answer." House's diagnostic technique is to look at the symptoms and determine what could cause them, and then eliminate them as the cause. Sometimes this is done by asking questions, sometimes through investigation, and sometimes through experimentation. It is the latter that leads to the greatest conflict. House will order a course of treatment which will cure one possible cause of the patient's illness but be either ineffective or dangerous to another possibility. In this manner he collects and analyses data which leads to the answer. (Incidentally the cases are apparently based on real case files, although the way the details of the actual case are not necessarily recreated) Surrounding Dr. House are his team: Dr. Eric Foreman (Omar Epps), a neurologist, Dr. Robert Chase (Jesse Spencer), an intensivist (a doctor specialising in iintensive care), and Dr. Allison Cameron (Jennifer Morrison), an immunologist. As well there's his best (well only) friend, Dr. James Wilson (Robert Sean Leonard), an oncologist, and hospital administrator, Dr. Lisa Cuddy (Lisa Edelstein). They are all specialists and so tend to see illnesses from their own viewpoint. Cameron is an immunologist so she tends to focus on infections as the principal case of problems rather to the exclusion of everything else. Similarly Foreman looks for neurological causes. House on the other hand looks beyond the boundaries of specialties to all possible causes.

House has had an interesting history as a series. Debuting in November 2004, following Fox's post season baseball coverage, the show had a major ratings improvement on its lead-in The Billionaire Rebel: Richard Branson's Quest for the Best, increasing the estimated audience from 5.35 million for Branson to 7 million. This still put the show in fourth place however. Viewership slumped by almost a million in the second week of the series. Although it remained mired in fourth place through the rest of the run of Billionaire Rebel, it continued to expand on the audience for that show by up to 87% at one point. Once American Idol became the lead-in for House in February 2005, ratings for the show took off. From being mired in fourth with the Branson series as its lead, House soared into first place when it followed Idol. The February 1, 2005 episode had 12.89 million viewers, and the February 8 episode had over 14 million. In other words the viewership doubled based entirely on having a popular show as a lead-in rather than a show that no one is interested in. This leads me to the obvious conclusion that the V-Chip can't possibly work: people are either too lazy or too dumb to change channels from hour to hour, so how can they be expected to master something as complicated as the V-Chip. (Before anyone complains, I am being sarcastic.)

In describing House as the best new show of the season, I am primarily concerned with the quality of the acting and the writing, both of which are excellent. Hugh Laurie does a masterful job playing the emotionally scarred Dr. House, who finds meaning in his work, and whose personal relationships are next to non-existant. There's no real need for external conflict, although the producers introduced some in the form of Chi McBride's character Edward Vogler. I am convinced that Vogler, a billionaire entrepreneur who buys his way into control of the hospital board and takes an immediate dislike to House because he's not "cost efficient", was introduced as a result of the early ratings. Vogler was intended to make House seem more sympathetic by being a nearly all powerful antagonist. By the time he was introduced however the crisis had ended. Viewers had begun to watch the show and they found the combination of the medical puzzles, House's outward irascibility and internal pain eminently easy to identify with. Credit belongs to the writers for crafting both an intriguing character but also to Hugh Laurie for making the character human and far more multidimensional than many characters on TV shows. All too often all we see of a character is him doing his job, with little detail of his life or personality beyond that. It is commendable.

(I'm getting a bit behind thanks to Sweeps and just the fact that it's May and there's a lot of stuff to do now that the snow is off the ground. I should have written this review of House earlier, but there was a lawn to mow before it started raining. I hope to have a review of Lost posted tomorrow.)

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