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Modified but no major `House' cleaning

September 05, 2006|Robert Lloyd | Times Staff Writer

Is "House" the best show on television? Without taking that honor away from any of the other shows I could call "possibly the best show on television," and will when their turn comes, I will just say, "Yes." It is exceptionally well-written, well-shot and well-played, and so far from not insulting the viewer's intelligence, it actively suggests that intelligence is more precious than the sentimental qualities television usually promotes: empathy, understanding, altruistic heroism. Yet part of what makes House lovable, in his unlovable way, is that he does not need to be loved, or even to be liked. It's also what makes him heroic -- a certainty based on facts, and a willingness to revise that certainty in the light of new facts -- because it sets him above the run of common men.

For the previously unaware or uninterested, "House" -- which begins its third season tonight on Fox -- concerns a brilliant diagnostic physician with a bum leg, a mordant wit and the bedside manner of a coroner, and, as has been noted before, as doctor shows go, it is strictly a detective series. It is all about an abundance of suspects, and repeated false leads, and stopping the killer (whether some exotic germ, or a hole in this or a blockage of that) before it kills again, as the clock ticks and tempers flare. Hugh Laurie, who was such an excellent Bertie opposite Stephen Frye in the imported "Jeeves and Wooster" series, and played Stuart Little's dad in the movies, is perhaps not the first person I would have expected to see in this role. But having seen him, I can't see anybody else.

If the gumshoe House outwardly most resembles is Elliott Gould's rumpled Philip Marlowe in Robert Altman's dark update of "The Long Goodbye" -- it is useless to compare him to Dr. Kildare or Ben Casey or even to Hawkeye Pierce -- functionally he is Sherlock Holmes, a fact that the producers have made clear in myriad ways, most recently by naming the character who shot House at the end of last season "Jack Moriarty," after Holmes' famous nemesis. House and Holmes share not only keen powers of observation but also generally synonymous last names, a touch of misanthropy, a musical avocation (House's piano to Holmes' violin) and a drug addiction -- though significantly House's comes not from mental boredom but from chronic pain. It's not out of moral weakness, then, that he chugs Vicodin, but practical expediency, and though there is some suggestion that House uses his cane as a ... crutch, pain does not make him a different person, it just makes him take pills. Dramatically speaking, this lets him be disreputable in a reputable sort of way, both an insider and an outsider, hero and victim.

But tonight we meet a House who is without pain -- the result of a brain "reboot" triggered by a chemically induced coma after he had been shot (which is to say, he got better while the show was on hiatus) and, more specifically, the result of the producers asking themselves "What can we do with this character in Season 3 that we haven't in the preceding two?" House's newly liberated condition, and an almost amused interest in what his body can do, not only gives Laurie some new attitudes to play but also provides fresh angles for the rest of the cast -- and, of course, for the writers.

To be sure, these changes are essentially cosmetic and possibly impermanent. (There are suggestions of relapse or worse -- the treatment sometimes wears off, the shooter is still at large.)

The bigger and more central the character, the less you can really do with him. The challenge of every successful television series is to make things different while keeping them the same, to give people what they want without making them sick of it -- an art of theme and variations in which the theme must always predominate, though not to the extent of making the formula distractingly obvious.

And so, although tonight's episode is titled "Meaning" (the final episode of last season was called "No Reason"), and there are suggestions made that House has changed not only physically but also perhaps spiritually -- he seems willing to treat other people as something more than intriguing puzzles or disappointingly open books -- it doesn't really matter why he got shot or what he might have "learned" from the experience.

A radically different House is not high on anyone's agenda, including the people who work with him and understand that his genius is inextricable from his pathology. (Although House is not himself a case to be solved -- because then the show is over.) We don't need him to be happy; he just needs to be right.

The technical term for this is "Don't mess with success." Or do, but just a little.



Where: Fox

When: 8 to 9 tonight

Rating: TV-PG L (may be unsuitable for young children with advisory for coarse language)


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