|BELIEVE THE HYPE? HOUSE.|
In my dating life, I was the nice guy. It wasn't a pose, it's who I am -- sweet, sensitive, that whole thing. Naturally, many women found me appealing, but I always knew what I was up against: the Bad Boys. The jerks, the clods, the creeps. Sure, these guys were often cruel, but deep down, it was explained to me, they had a good
heart. Never ceased to drive me crazy -- women had the opportunity to be with readily available good guys, but some of them wanted to seek out the bastards in the hopes of being the one to expose their soft side.
Relationships aren't the only place such questionable human behavior occurs; it happens in our favorite television programs, too. Specifically, I'm thinking of critics' and fans' response to Hugh Laurie and his misanthropic teddy bear of a character, Dr. Gregory House.
When "House" premiered last fall, its main selling point was that it
was executive produced by X-Men director Bryan Singer. A year later, after success in the ratings and Emmy nominations under its belt, the talk is all about Laurie. A relatively unknown actor before "House," Laurie was blessedly free of baggage or audience identification. (Many fans of the show still might not even know that he's British considering how well he hides the accent.) As the center of the hit show, Laurie dominates every moment, even grabbing an Emmy nomination for his trouble.
The show began its second season last Tuesday under a storm of hype -- when you get LL Cool J as a guest star, you're big time -- and its supporters remain as loyal as ever. "House" courts television's large drama audience with a similar M.O. to many other Nielsen favorites. At its core, "House" is a procedural that peppers its dialogue with job-specific terminology no neophyte can possibly follow and features computer-effect shots of people's internal organs as they deteriorate, rupture and fail. Creator David Shore, who used to work on "Law & Order," has probably come up with the canniest cross-pollination of the detective drama and the medical show on TV right now. House and his pretty colleagues (Omar Epps, Jennifer Morrison and Jesse Spencer) go after a patient's mysterious disease like it's a murderer escaping justice, plus we get lots of gory blood-and-guts moments to please the couch doctors watching at home.
But the show's secret weapon is Laurie, portraying one of the oldest character staples in all of fiction: the grumpy antihero who is bitter and hostile because, you see, deep down he's got emotional problems that he's trying to cover up. Sure, he's addicted to Vicodin, but that's because his right leg is permanently hobbled from a missed diagnosis years ago. Plus, he lost the love of his life, Sela Ward -- who could possible be sunny and charming after such a heartbreak? Deep down, he means well -- his bedside manner is abrasive at best, but his primary goal is making people feel better. So, really, he's not so bad, right?
House is the most prominent jerk doctor on TV currently, but he's hardly the only one -- or the best. Ted Danson's underrated "Becker" starred an antisocial physician much like House; he was a cranky smart-aleck whose cynicism was a way to shield his heart. Or, to use a better example, there's "Scrubs" and the great John C. McGinley, whose Dr. Perry Cox, like House, enjoys lording his experience and seniority over his underlings. But while "Becker" was a solid but by no means breakout hit, and "Scrubs" struggles to stay on the air, "House" thrives. What's the difference this time?
After going back through the first season -- and the mediocre (and relatively typical) first episode of the new season -- I can only surmise that "House," like so many of my romantic rivals, tricks people into thinking it's more complex than it really is.
With few exceptions, one episode of "House" is very much like another. Taking a page from "Law & Order," it opens with an ordinary, daily situation which quickly becomes the set-up for the episode's medical mystery. We cut to House, full of withering humor and surly demeanor, who will decide that this case is so freakin' bizarre that he has to look into it himself. His hand-selected team of doctors spouts different suggestions for what life-threatening disease the patient has -- we have no idea what any of them are talking about -- and then House selects one possible course of action. That action fails -- the patient reacts horrifically by spontaneously vomiting or bleeding from his rectum or going blind -- and House and his team have to figure out what to do next. After several diagnoses fail -- which usually puts the patient near death -- some sort of last-minute a-ha revelation occurs, the patient pulls through, and House is left in his office confronting his demons in silence and a slow fade-out.
Nothing's wrong with a tightly structured show -- most successful programs follow a reliable formula. What matters is the overriding thematic agenda, and this is where "House" confuses set design -- everything looks so cool and high-tech you'd think you were on a starship -- and Laurie's game performance for depth. We're supposed to recognize that House is our modern equivalent to Sherlock Holmes, the aloof genius doomed to deal with mere mortals. He can solve impossible medical cases, but he will never be whole -- he will always be alone, he will always be in physical and emotional pain. It's a neat idea, but "House" is often little more than dumb, pulpy fun. Other times, it's just ridiculous.
The fault is not with Laurie. Because House is such an obvious juxtaposition of caustic intelligence and buried insecurity, Laurie has fun playing the contradictions, but the character doesn't have any mystery to him. From the first moments of the pilot, you could tell that House wasn't as bad as he let on -- He Had Secrets. But once the first episode concluded with House's explanation of How He Became This Way, the cat was out of the bag and then the writers had to find new ways to keep the juxtaposition fresh. If that wasn't enough, they also have to come up with even weirder health cases that, if they're feeling really inspired, touch on some hot-button topic like the right to die or plastic surgery or capital punishment. It's unfair to expect network television to be as artful as the best movies are, but "House," like so many other shows, plays out like a lumpy assortment of high-stakes emotional manipulation, heavy soap opera and familiar story arcs -- it frantically tries to please all the audience demographics at once. And because the medical mysteries in "House" are indecipherable -- as opposed to "Law & Order" at its peak, the clues don't mean anything to anybody who doesn't have an M.D. at the end of his name -- you're forced to cling to House's mini-dramas of painkiller addiction, opening up to coworkers, and trying to be a real person. But these are too simplistic; House never feels as intriguingly "troubled" as some of our real-life friends and lovers who have plagued our days and tested our patience.
As a medical show, "House" ends up feeling less realistic than "Scrubs," which is "just" a silly comedy. McGinley's Cox is an arrogant blowhard, but he's no genius -- he's depressingly fallible, personally and professionally. While "House" puts its hero on a pedestal, "Scrubs" wants Cox to be relatable. And although "House" overdoes the close-ups of arteries and blood cells, the doctors of "Scrubs" are the ones that seem believable -- they don't just riff back and forth like they're longing for the glory days of "The West Wing." And when patients die on "Scrubs," it matters; when patients are on death's door in "House," they're little more than automatons, vehicles for the "cool" mystery. There's a lot of agony and angst on "House," but there's little soul. Laurie seems like a good guy, but his bad boy needs a little help.
Believe the Hype Rating: 4 out of 10
Tim Grierson is the editor of The Simon. Believe the Hype runs every other Monday on The Black Table.