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A window into `House'

March 08, 2007|Mary McNamara | Times Staff Writer

BEING a "House" fan is a bit like being friends with an addict. You have to put up with ridiculous behavior: a doctor who doesn't ever wear a surgical mask, milelong tapeworms, a season-ending shooting that is never mentioned again. There are also the inexplicable disappearances -- whenever "American Idol" needs a little extra legroom, "House" goes missing -- and all those lies -- everyone who thought House really had brain cancer this week please stand on your heads. But you remain an Avid Viewer for the same reason many people hang out with drunks and addicts: because, on top of their game, they are more fun than anyone you know.

This week's "House" will no doubt keep many of us codependents hooked for months. When a brain-damaged savant piano player loses the use of a hand, House, played by Hugh Laurie, is not only given license to figure out "where the music comes from," but also to decide what is more important: a small slice of real genius or a whole, but ordinary, life.

Many dramas lately seemed obsessed with themes, forcing the narrative threads to somehow coalesce into a meaningful take-away for the viewer. Like Oprah, only with beautiful TV stars. And "House" has occasionally fallen into that trap. But the theme of "Half Wit" (House's kind term for the young man) seemed to emerge organically from the story, which was ideally suited for House, who has already been established as a talented piano player himself.

Genius of any type is always interesting to contemplate, and post-"Rain Man" we all love savants, especially since this one gave us famous guest star Dave Mathews. (I can only hope that he is the first of a string; surely Laurie could call in chits with Emma Thompson and Imelda Staunton -- and what is Stephen Fry, the famous Jeeves to Laurie's Wooster doing on "Bones" when he should be on "House"?)

As the childlike musician, Mathews was wide-eyed with pathos and watching him do a four-handed jam with Laurie in the middle of a hospital room produced instant nostalgia for all those old musical variety shows of my youth. Why does no one play the piano on TV anymore? It's so darn sexy. (Trivia from the website: Mathews needed a hand double; Laurie did not.)

Meanwhile, back in secondary-plotland, House's colleagues "discover" that he has been in contact with a Boston oncologist who is apparently treating House for brain cancer. The trend toward putting doctors in mortal peril is getting tedious -- if you want your main character in mortal peril, make him a cop, or a wedding planner -- but it did give Cameron an excuse for a pretty sexy kiss (followed by an attempt to take a blood sample). And when House tries to parlay an embrace with Cuddy into something more, her exit line -- "Call the Make a Wish Foundation" was worth the cranking suspension of disbelief.

We also got to watch surgeons removing half of a man's brain and that's not something you see every day.

Still, "House" is pretty much a single-character-driven show, and what made this episode worth remarking on was that it actually revealed that holy grail of drama: character development. "House" is essentially a psychological striptease. We want to know more about the character but not too much; we want him to be, perhaps, a bit more human but we don't want him to change because he is so entertaining as he is.

In "Half Wit," we got both: the cold, selfish, outrageous House, who would allow his colleagues to think he was dying just, as Cameron puts it, "to get high." But also a man who, surprisingly, values a whole normal life over a limited but extraordinary one. "He looks happy," House says of his patient, and on his face is the longing of a man who couldn't explain happiness if you put a gun to his head, but knows it when he sees it. In others.

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