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THE NEW TV SEASON

After cleaning 'House'

In a bid to stay atop the network heap, Hugh Laurie's doc goes on a hiring-and-firing spree. Hey, it's all in character.

September 23, 2007|Maria Elena Fernandez | Times Staff Writer

The Emmy statue would have gone so nicely with the surfboard.

But, really, who needs a stuffy old Emmy when the people who know what's hot have named you the Teen Choice TV Actor? Hugh Laurie has two Golden Globes at home and has earned two Emmy nominations, but America's adolescents last month picked him over Matthew Fox, Wentworth Miller, Milo Ventimiglia and Jared Padalecki as their favorite male TV star on the awards show presented by Fox and Global TV.

Not bad for a 48-year-old, huh?

Or as Laurie, star of Fox's Emmy-nominated "House," put it, "Given that the ages of all the other nominees probably don't add up to mine, I felt that was a real triumph. It's a huge thrill for me and I can't deny it."

Winning the Teen Choice surfboard, which Laurie says he will use "to iron my shirts or something," is actually not as much of an anomaly as it might seem, because "House" ranked as the top-rated scripted show among 12- to 17-year-olds last season. More important, the medical mystery drama also pushed past surgical soap "Grey's Anatomy" to garner the season's highest number of advertiser-coveted 18- to 49-year-old viewers for all scripted shows.

Now, in an attempt to keep that momentum for its fourth season, "House" producers have concocted a story line that takes advantage of House's irreverence and acerbic humor and, interestingly, forces art to imitate life. Just as 40 fellowship candidates are competing for not-so-dreamy jobs with Laurie's Dr. Gregory House, guest actors are vying for regular roles on the Fox drama. The writers are still mulling over which two or three will stay.

"What can happen often in TV is that if something is successful, everyone is nervous about changing anything in case they risk upsetting the boat," Laurie said. "But, of course, by the time you actually get a sign that you should change something, it's too late. I think it's very clever on the part of the writers that they have used the impetus we have at the moment to very slightly change directions. It's perfectly in keeping with House's way of going about things. You make House do something at your peril."

Cross-generational appeal

LAURIE, whose characters on Britain's "A Bit of Fry and Laurie," "Black Adder" and "Jeeves and Wooster" were not as high-minded as the infectious-disease specialist he plays now, says it makes him nervous to think about the show's triple-threat success -- high ratings, critical acclaim and awards -- out of fear "that almost immediately it will evaporate like the morning dew." But he has come up with a credible theory on why the cranky, charismatic doctor has cross-generational appeal.

"Not that anybody cynically designed it this way, but I do think that House in some ways appeals to an older audience because he expresses all the impatience that old people have with the way the modern world is going and the touchy-feely, anti-scientific way the world is going," Laurie said. "But he also, I think, connects to teenagers who are similarly impatient with all the rules and restrictions on life. And that rebellious side of House really does appeal to teenagers."

If that is the magic formula, then this season, which begins at 9 p.m. Tuesday, should follow suit because the scheme that House hatches when he is forced to hire doctors to replace Foreman, Cameron and Chase makes his pretending to have cancer last season seem almost sane. The third-season finale packed a wallop -- the genius doctor who claims he prefers the company of his guitar was left alone, literally. After Foreman (Omar Epps) tendered his two-week notice, House hastily fired Chase (Jesse Spencer), which, in turn, prompted Cameron (Jennifer Morrison) to quit too.

The shake-up was not something creator David Shore had planned from the beginning of the season, but one the writers happened upon as they explored the effect of Foreman's departure on the team. Then, as the writers played with the idea of how House would handle losing everyone, Shore realized he was in the enviable position of reinvigorating his winning blueprint without forcing it, a challenge all hit shows face as they age and are sized up against new programs.

"Rather than, 'Oh my God, oh my God, we've run out of stuff, it's starting to get boring, it's starting to get dull, we've got to change something, what are we going to change?,' we changed it based on our own agenda," Shore said. "Let's try it now while the show is still working very well. We're just expanding the world. The show is not different. It's just growing a little bit."

To be sure, the May finale caught fans by surprise. All summer, Internet message boards have been filled with the musings of frustrated and excited fans alike -- some charging the producers with "ruining the show" for the sake of a "gimmick," others speculating that House's three fellows at Princeton-Plainsboro Teaching Hospital will all be back because the producers would never fire three series leads of a hit show at the same time.

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