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Hey, Fox, `House' doesn't need remodel

`American Idol' lead-in brings record ratings for an atypical episode with a needless insight.

February 01, 2007|Mary McNamara | Times Staff Writer

IN the three weeks between new episodes of "House," Hugh Laurie won a Golden Globe and a SAG Award for his portrayal of sardonic drug addict and master of diagnostic detection Gregory House. And on Tuesday's episode, he certainly earned both the hard way.

Fox's "American Idol" gave this episode its highest ratings ever, and it's too bad this was their introduction since it was the most un-"Housian" "House" to date. (You could practically see the network note: "Never mind that it's a hit; let's shake up the format.") Absent was the signature opening vignette of someone having a medical crisis; gone were the cool graphics of synapses firing/microbes invading/muscles detaching that give the viewer a corpuscle's-eye view; lacking was the diagnostic banter and the endless MRIs that have held this single-personality-driven show together. It was sort of like watching "MASH" without the helicopters. Or the jokes.

Instead, we had House, forced into his loathed clinic duty, coming across a young woman who has contracted an STD during a rape she has, if desultory exposition is to be believed, not told anyone about. Through a plot contrivance I cannot bring myself to describe, the police are not called but the woman is set up with the requisite IV and installed in the hospital while the Entire Staff (or at least those with whom viewers are acquainted) insists that House, whom the unfortunate woman seems to trust, get her to "talk about it." Yes, this is just what most hospital pay their high-salaried diagnostic teams to do.

But then House is a man of many walls and so it is ironic that this vulnerable young woman would turn to him for emotional connection. Except that House is armed with Laurie's award-winning baby blues and an ability to avert his gaze in a way that suggests that he, not she, is the vulnerable one.

And so we spent 40-odd minutes watching the woman try to extract the details of Something Terrible that has happened to House in exchange for her own story, a tableau as surreal as the chess game in "The Seventh Seal," complete with elliptical dialogue and existential arguments about things like abortion. (Turns out that, on top of everything else, the poor girl is pregnant and it is just assumed it's from the rape, allowing House to introduce into the vernacular the charming term "rape baby.")

OK, there was also a subplot involving a homeless guy with cancer who is "adopted" by Cameron (memo to hair and makeup: It is OK that actress Jennifer Morrison is very pretty. Please stop giving her hairstyles/colors to suggest otherwise). In an effort to be remembered, Homeless Guy refuses treatment, though he too is fixed up with a private room and an IV (this hospital must have some plenty big donor base) and dies, on cue, a relatively painless death considering it is lung cancer.

The episode climaxes with House's revelation that his father was abusive (and when we met him last season, he seemed like such a nice guy!), which I suppose provided emotional catharsis for some people. For me, I am holding out hopes that House was just lying again.

Because House, like Sherlock Holmes on whom he is based, is that delicious maddening cipher -- the cold man to whom so many are drawn. Of course the writers are tempted to humanize, or at least explain him, a bit, but this is dangerous territory because so much of this archetype's charm is its mystery. Arthur Conan Doyle never attempted it; all psychoanalysis of Holmes came from subsequent writers. And if revelation leads to recovery, House fans are in big trouble. We don't want him to recover because then he won't be nearly as interesting.

And we can't live long without the show's anatomical graphics either. If anybody cares.

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